Cancer Survivor: Elreida Heffernan

Elreida Heffernan – My Modern Day Miracle Mom

by Wendy Ford, Team CMMD teammate

I was 11 years old, and unable to grasp the realities of most adult conversations, but I understood that my mom was sick and needed surgery. She had cancer #1. She was 35 years old. Dad said that she was going to be in the hospital in the city instead of the local hospital; she needed a better doctor to do her surgery. It was scary; at 11 I just knew I loved my mommy and could not imagine life without her. Two weeks in the hospital seemed like an eternity. But she came home, healed, went through chemotherapy (which was kind of awful), and everything seemed to go back to normal. 1981 was a long time ago, and the treatment for cervical cancer was radical surgery. That surgery saved my mom’s life.

Fast forward to 1992. I was finishing college. I now knew what cancer was; it took Pop pop. It was the reason I never met either of my mom’s parents. It was back, and mom was diagnosed with colon cancer (#2). This time, as a grown up, I understood so much more. Scary still, yes, but I could help now. I was there in the hospital for her surgery, waiting in that terrible room for the surgeon to call with the news. Once again the news was the best it could be; luckily mom was able to have a resection without any terrible after effects like a colostomy. She did undergo chemo and radiation, and once again it seemed she had beaten The Beast.

Ten years pass. 2002 – another colon cancer diagnosis (#3). Another miracle; mom beat it again. One year later, 2003 – no! Yes, this time the ureter at her right kidney (#4). She would need an ostomy site where she would void from a tube on that side. But, miracles happen, and mom beat it, again.

Short lived, in 2005 she is diagnosed with kidney cancer in her right kidney (#5 – oh my goodness!). They remove it. Nine months later the cancer has returned in her left kidney at the junction where the ureter was (#6). Now the ostomy site must change. Mom would undergo extensive surgery to remove the cancer and save her only kidney. Recovery was slow, but my miracle mom fought quietly, but she fought, and she became whole once again.

#7 arrived in 2009 with skin cancer and six months of Mohs procedures and scars that seemed to not want to heal. But they did, and my miracle mom was able to enjoy what she called “the best thing to happen in her life.” In 2007 mom became a grandmother for the first time. Taylor Grace, my daughter, became what seemed to be mom’s whole world. The love between them was undeniably awesome. It was as if she was saved and kept here on this earth for this reason; to be YaYa!

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In 2011 mom turned 65. Thirty years since her first cancer diagnosis, and certainly she is a miracle. We celebrated her 65 years with a fun video montage of memories through all the years of her life.

Team CMMD came into existence in January of 2013. I was one of the first people to join. It seemed as if it was meant to be. My mom, through all her cancer battles, somehow was one of the lucky ones; so many people were not. Despite helping care for my mom time after time and doing everything I could to be there for her during her time of need, I still felt helpless. “Run 10 miles down Broad Street” Christine said. Make a difference. Raise money, run, fight. I was in. The story of her aunt was so eerily similar to my mom’s battles that I signed up immediately (and had buyer’s remorse the next morning when I realized I had not ever run more than up and down a basketball court in my life and now I somehow had to get 10 miles down Broad Street).

Was it hard – damn right it was. I borrowed mom and dad’s 15 year old treadmill and began training, only to burn out said treadmill and found myself in the Meyer basement putting in my miles. We ran outside, in the cold, in the rain, in the wind.

In mid-February, my 46 year old only brother was diagnosed- stage 3 colon cancer. We of course were both high risk due to mom’s 2Xs having it, but he had only gone once, in 2002 for a colonoscopy. Eleven years he didn’t keep up getting checked. Surgery for Joe was 3 weeks before Broad Street. Certainly I knew I was doing the right thing by running. I was on Team CMMD for mom, for Joe, for me. It felt good. I honored them with a successful 10 miles, and life was good! Until June, when mom and I were scheduled to take each other for our annual colonoscopies. She went first and I would go a week later. When the doctor came in to talk to us after the procedure it was written all over his face (poker would not be his game): #8. A mass in what little colon mom had left. He said to schedule an office visit for one week and we would discuss the options.

That car ride home was one of the worse days in my life. Mom said there was no way she would have a colostomy along with her ureterostomy. She would not have surgery if that was the option. This would be the cancer that beats her she said. I protested. I cried. I said that she couldn’t do that to Taylor, to me. She couldn’t NOT FIGHT now. She said “Wendy, I have fought many battles, and one of these is bound to beat me; perhaps this is the one.” A week felt like an eternity. I could not argue with my mom. It was her body, and if she was not willing to handle the idea of two ostomy sites to void from, then I had to accept that, like it or not. We sat together in the office of the surgeon and waited for his words. As plain as day, Dr. Poker Face said he could remove the tumor, and the worst case scenario would be a temporary colostomy. NOT permanent, and maybe not at all. Surgery was July 19. We were gearing up for battle #8. We would win, we had to; Yaya needed Taylor and she needed her Yaya! Success (and no colostomy)! But at age 66, recovery was much harder than any other. Also learning how to live life with basically no colon was not easy. Many days mom thought she’d never leave the house again. Thank goodness for my career as a teacher so I could be there daily to help, encourage, food shop, take her to her appointments, help her heal. Slowly she adapted, her body healed, and she learned how to eat and regulate with medication so she basically could be ‘normal’ once again. By October 5th, her 67th birthday, you wouldn’t know all she’d been through. My miracle mom.

Eight cancers. Her oncologist and doctors are all amazed by her. We all are. Over the years we learned that one of the reasons for her cancers was that during her pregnancy with my mom, her mother took what was back in the 1940’s a miracle drug called DES. It would later be found to have been highly cancer causing, and is why mom lost her own mother at age 14.

I am blessed. Taylor is blessed. My mom is the most blessed. She is quite humble. People ask her why she doesn’t speak to others about being such a miracle, why she doesn’t share her story. She doesn’t see it that way really. Mom has spoken with others who are in a cancer battle, and she tells them just two things: fight; with all your being fight the daily fight and you will get through it. Secondly, be your own advocate. If you think something doesn’t feel right, look right, seem right, speak up.

We are blessed every day to have YaYa. She will be 70 years old this fall, and will have doubled her life from the time of her first cancer diagnosis. Who knew? Well, mom knew, because she is my miracle.

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