Breast-cancer survivor Heather Kish of Warren holds two photos of herself. The photo at left is from her senior year of high school, and the one at right was taken during her six months of chemotherapy treatment.
Breast-cancer survivor from Warren perseveres
By Kristine Gill
When Heather Kish learned she had breast cancer three years ago, she knew there was one thing she could control.
“My hair was going to come out when I wanted it to,” Kish said.
And so, just weeks after her diagnosis in October 2007 and days before her first chemotherapy treatment, the 38-year-old Warren resident had her head shaved.
Kish is just one of 178,480 women in the country diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, according to the American Cancer Society. As a resident of the Mahoning Valley, she also is from an area where late-stage diagnosis and breast-cancer mortality rates are some of the highest in the state, according to a study done by Susan G. Komen for The Cure.
St. Elizabeth Health Center won a grant through the Susan G. Komen Foundation to further breast-cancer education in the area just in time to have screenings for Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October.
Nancy Gantt, a surgeon at the hospital, said she recently treated five women between age 25 and 30 for signs of the disease.
“It frightens me that they’re all from the Valley,” Gantt said.
Women diagnosed with Kish’s stage and type of cancer are given an 85 percent chance of survival.
“It’s the worst news you’d ever want to hear,” said Kish’s husband, Michael. “The worst thoughts go through your head, and that’s the first 10 seconds. Then it’s, ‘What do we have to do to beat it?’”
For more than a year, Kish had felt a pinching pain in her chest right over the sternum. Doctors dismissed it as stress, a pulled muscle or anxiety. She was too young to be considered for breast cancer.
But while lying down one day, Kish noticed a newly formed tumor the size of a golf ball protruding from her chest.
Kish told her three children — Michael, 17, Nick, 15, and Emma, 9 — soon after her Oct. 25 diagnosis.
“We just kept it at facts,” Kish said. “We tried not to get emotional.”
Then, on Oct. 30, Kish found herself on the operating table undergoing a radical mastectomy where doctors removed her breast and lymph nodes under her arm.
Kish was just months away from finishing the two-year nursing program at the Trumbull Career & Technical Center at the time. Her first doctor told her to put school on hold while she battled her disease, but that wasn’t an option for Kish.
“I spent two years on bloody knuckles crawling through nursing school with three kids,” said Kish, who returned to class Nov. 5 “tubes and all” and began chemotherapy a few weeks later.
Her husband kept up with the kids at home and took to remodeling the kitchen and dining room by tearing down a wall when he needed release.
Their middle child, Nick, took to selling homemade candy at school to raise money for a Relay for Life Team called Heather’s Hope that his family started.
“It’s been hard at different times, Nick said. “During chemo, my mom was super tired.”
Twice, her reactions to the chemotherapy landed Kish in the hospital where she joked she likely had earned frequent-flyer miles.
“She was a on a first-name basis with all the nurses,” Michael said.
Kish graduated from nursing school in January 2008 and walked across the stage wearing a wig rather than a scarf for the first time and being sure to divert attention from her disease. She finished chemotherapy that spring, and her hair began to grow back soon after.
Kish will be labeled as “in remission” Oct. 25, 2012, five years after her diagnosis. In the meantime, she attends regular doctor appointments with fingers crossed that nothing comes up in her tests.
Things are going well these days, but Kish worries her condition could have been caught sooner. Because she was only 35 at the time, breast cancer wasn’t on the radar for her or her doctors. The recommended age to begin yearly mammograms is 40.
“Cancer doesn’t know how old you are,” said Kish, who already has made breast-cancer awareness her new life’s work.
As clinical coordinator at Warren West Community Health Center, Kish facilitates free access mammograms and breast-health education.
She is looking to start her own foundation, Heather’s Hope, to ensure that grant money is always available for the program.
She said what frustrates her the most as a nurse and a survivor is that some women can’t afford screenings or don’t have insurance.
Kish still gets emotional when she remembers the day she said goodbye to long locks of her hair.
“I never let anyone see me without a scarf or a hat,” Kish said. “Not even family.”
It wasn’t until talking with a photographer at her daughter’s dance studio that Kish decided to capture her new look on film.
After taking several shots of Kish wearing different scarves, the photographer was ready to wrap up.
“I said, ‘There are a few more photos I think we have to take,’” she said.
And for the first time in public, Kish untied her scarf.