By WILLIAM K. ALCORN
Living with stage-four lung cancer makes each Christmas more precious for Heather Hynek.
“I don’t know how many Christmases I have left, but the ones I do have will be very special ... filled with family and friends and all the traditional things that I and my husband grew up with,” she said.
The Boardman wife and mother, diagnosed in February 2009 with stage four, non-small cell lung cancer that had spread to her brain, has not given in to the disease.
She is getting on with her life, working out regularly and preparing to parlay her degree from Youngstown State University in environmental studies and geology — completed after her diagnosis — into a “good job.”
And she is determined to be around to see her 3-year-old daughter, Violet Grace, grow up.
Heather was 12 weeks pregnant when she was diagnosed with cancer, and most of her physicians recommended she abort the pregnancy because of the probability her child would be damaged by the radiation and chemotherapy used to treat the cancer.
Unbeknownst to Heather, doctors at the Cleveland Clinic told her husband, Aaron, that they doubted she would live more than a year.
But, don’t feel sorry for Heather — she doesn’t. And don’t count her out, either.
Heather says she is thankful for her life and her family and is busy preparing for a third holiday season with her daughter and husband, who is a sales representative for Sysco food distributors.
“I don’t want anything for Christmas except to bless my husband and daughter, the two most important people in my life. If something happens, I want Violet Grace to remember her mother,” Heather said.
Three years ago, at 38, life was going smoothly for Heather.
She was married to the man she would describe during the darkest days of her illness as having the “soul of an angel,” and pregnant with their first child.
She had noticed nagging symptoms, such as numbness in her legs, which she brushed off as having done too much competitive dancing as a child and young woman.
However, a grand mal seizure suffered while lying on the couch at home led to extensive tests at Cleveland Clinic’s Taussig Cancer Institute and a diagnosis of lung cancer Feb. 7, 2009.
Because of her pregnancy, treating the cancer was more complex than usual.
But once Heather and Aaron decided not to abort, radiation oncologists devised a treatment plan aimed at protecting her unborn daughter as well as attacking the cancer.
The issue with pregnancy and cancer is that usually, in order to be as aggressive as possible with the cancer, various options, one of which is to abort, are discussed. Sometimes that is the only option, said Dr. Samuel T. Chao of the Cleveland Clinic’s Brain Tumor and Neuro-oncology Center and Radiation Oncology Department.
In Heather’s case, there was a little bit of “wiggle room,” he said.
It was a very small lesion in her lung that caused the cancer in her brain, which was life-threatening, and the distance from the brain to the uterus helped, he said.
Chemotherapy for the lung cancer was delayed until Heather’s last trimester to give Violet Grace time to further develop. A lead shield was used to protect her during radiation treatments.
Heather said she was concerned about her baby, but technicians at the hospital told her not to worry. “They were so positive about the whole thing. They were amazing,” she said.
In August 2009, Heather gave birth to a healthy baby girl whom her parents named Violet Grace.
They gave Violet her middle name of Grace “because it’s God’s grace she is here with us. Without Christ in our lives, and the strength we find in him, we would not be able handle this,” Heather said.
Heather said Violet Grace is all she could ask for.
“She is daddy’s girl. She goes out and rakes leaves with him with her little pink rake. She wants to vacuum.
“I just look at her. She is so smart,” said Heather. “She dresses herself and is lot further ahead developmentally than a lot of kids her age. She has definite opinions and tastes. ... She loves spinach salad and oriental food. She’ll try anything,” Heather said.
While pregnant, Heather underwent whole-brain radiation and still receives Gamma Knife radiotherapy treatments for lesions that develop in her brain.
Despite this, Heather is thankful for her life and is getting on with her life.
The 1988 Boardman High School graduate works out regularly, has circulated petitions to get more lights on her street, and testified before the Ohio Legislature in favor of anti-stalking legislation.
She finished her degree at YSU, where her father, Dean Hoops, Ph.D., was a member of the faculty and former chairman of the Special Education Program in the Department of Education. Heather’s mother, Deborah Hoops, is deceased. Her sister, Megan Anderson, lives in Boardman.
Heather said she didn’t get the degree as part of a final to-do list.
“I have worked my whole life ... as a teen at Burger King on U.S. Route 224; as a waitress at Stonebridge Grille & Tavern and Cafe
Capri; and as a dance instructor at Linda Diamond Studios,” where she studied as a child.
“I got the degree so I could get a good job,” she said.
“I just enjoy the moments,” she said of her life with cancer, but which is not defined by cancer.
“Sometimes they are so great I forget I am sick. I take all my pills, and when there is a problem, I address it. My husband has been nothing but supportive. He’s not
ignoring the problems, but he says the way science is working, if we give it some time, maybe they’ll come up with something,” she said.
“Without God and family and friends and the people at Victory Christian Church in Coitsville, I would have crumbled and been a mess,” she said.
“I will be here to watch my daughter grow up. I’m not going anywhere. I firmly believe God will see me through and give me that time with her.”