by Alia Tarraf
“I felt like I was really living before I got cancer. But now I’m living in full color. Just yesterday I drove ten hours round trip to surprise my husband at the finish line of his 100-mile Best Buddies bike race [for children with Down syndrome] he did in honor of our daughter, Sadie. I brought Sadie with me. It was a surreal adventure that I would have never thought about doing before the cancer. It was an easy decision to drive the distance just to see Todd’s face when he crossed the finished line. I’m incredibly thankful to be a girl with an attitude of gratitude. I’m now seeing all my lemons turn to lemonade and life is so sweet.”
Heidi Virkus, a vibrant stay-at-home 39-year old mother of three, was seven months pregnant when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was early in the morning. Her mother-in-law had just arrived to help her with the kids. Ten days earlier she had found a lump that both she and her OB thought was just her mammary glands getting ready to produce milk. Her mother-in-law had just shut the door when the phone rang. It was Heidi’s doctor. Everything stopped. Heidi quickly walked into the garage, her full belly carrying her unborn child, and came undone.
Already fighting Crohn’s disease, Heidi had to decide whether or not to have chemo during her last trimester. What would it do to her healthy baby? What would it do to her family? She decided she had to take the chance in order to live. So she could be there for her other children, Sam (8), Sophie (5), Sadie (3), her adoring husband, Todd, and the baby on the way.
After Heidi’s fourth chemo session, she gave birth to an unscathed, perfect little baby girl named Sarahsurrounded by her cheering committee. Two weeks later, she started another four rounds of chemo. When that ended, she had a double mastectomy. Then later, a total hysterectomy. And after all that, she had final breast reconstruction. Through it all, Heidi’s faith, family and friends lifted her up and helped her fight through, especially Sadie. Sadie acts as an anti-depressant, teaching Heidi, along with her husband and other children, more about herself than anything or anyone ever could.
WHAT KIND OF CANCER DID YOU FIGHT? I had breast cancer. It was an isolated tumor that did not spread to the nodes.
IS THERE A HISTORY OF CANCER IN YOUR FAMILY? My aunt has ovarian cancer and my paternal grandparents had both lung and colon cancer.
DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR CANCER CAME FROM? No, possibly my dad’s side. I lived on the edge for many years, abusing my body and mind with behaviors that could have contributed, but I’m really not sure.
DID YOU THINK YOU WERE AT RISK? No. I have been eating healthy for the past sixteen-plus years, meditating daily and living an anti-cancer lifestyle.
WHAT WAS YOUR RECOVERY FROM SURGERY AND TREATMENT LIKE? The anticipation was worse than the actual treatment. I take longer to heal because I have Crohn’s disease. The hardest part of the healing was after the double mastectomy. I have a high threshold for pain but the drains and wounds gave me debilitating pain. Losing my hair and lashes was incredibly humbling, especially for someone like me who is slightly hair-obsessed. I love hair and makeup.
DID YOU EXPERIENCE ANY SIDE EFFECTS FROM TREATMENTS OR SURGERY? Yes. I used and still use acupuncture for the side effects which include: sensitive teeth, numb extremities, nausea, exhaustion, insomnia, light sensitivity, joint pain and hair loss.
WHAT IS YOUR MEDICAL MAINTENANCE SCHEDULE NOW? Visiting my oncologist and surgeons every six months.
HOW IMPORTANT DID YOU FIND DIET AND EXERCISE IN GETTING THROUGH TREATMENT AND SURGERY? Early in my chemo treatments, I exercised but as the chemo built up in my system, and the more pregnant I became, I just didn’t have the energy anymore. I fed my body three square meals a day, all with anti-cancer foods. The food was fuel and medicine.
HOW DID YOU GET THROUGH THE DAY-TO-DAY OF YOUR CANCER FIGHT? I was armed with the support of my friends, family and fellowship. I was completely taken care of. I surrendered to the healing process, but fought the cancer with everything I had. I surrounded myself with positive people, asked for help, let people help me and actually enjoyed many moments. I’ve thought about writing a book called the “Sweet Spots of Cancer” because I was so surprised that I embraced the process with looking for the good.
HOW DID YOU FIGHT CANCER EMOTIONALLY? My anti-depressants were my kids, especially pure and sweet Sadie. I just had and do have so much to live for. Even knowing that my unborn child needed me kept me going. My hubby and I grew closer. I continued to do as much life as I could. Practicing my faith and belief in God helped tremendously. I already had walked through having a special needs child. We knew we could handle cancer.
WHAT DOES BEING A SURVIVOR FEEL LIKE? I am woman. Hear me roar! I am tougher than I thought. It’s just such a huge relief. On the other hand, it’s super hard to readjust to “normal” life. I’ve had a whirlwind of a year and during that time I had a baby too! It’s almost like I’m waking up and saying, “Oh, wow, when did this fourth kid come and live here?”. The calm after the storm with just gray days are actually sometimes more difficult than the high drama of the past cancer-fighting year.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHER CANCER FIGHTERS? Take good care of yourself. Not just for you, but for the people around you. Ask for help. Sleep. Write. Shop a little. Go on walks. Watch TV. Read. Talk. Cry. Cry some more. Laugh. Eat Well. Pray. Thank.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR THE MEDICAL PROFESSION? Keep an open mind to new treatments and ideas. Anything is possible.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR FRIENDS, FAMILY AND CO-WORKERS OF CANCER FIGHTERS? Buckle your seatbelts and put your own oxygen mask on first. I made sure my husband and family were not completely putting their lives on hold. Find healthy outlets. You’re fighting this together. It’s sometimes harder for the caregiver than even the patient.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE FUTURE? WHAT ARE YOUR HOPES AND DREAMS? I want to live until I’m 120 years old. I had kids a little later in life so I want to be a fully functional grandma someday. I just want to be healthy and enjoy watching my kids grow up and make life choices that support healthy and happy living. I have become more of a giver because of this process. The people in my life poured money, food, time, energy and love my way when I was sick. It’s time to give back.
FOR YOU IN ONE WORD, WHAT IS CANCER? Life.