Cancer

Joyce and Richard Heaton met their great-granddaughter, Alexis, in Christmas of 2012. At the time, Joyce was eight years cancer free and Richard was still undergoing chemotherapy from Burkitt lymphoma. Today, the couple has been married for 60 years, are both cancer survivors and plan on meeting their new great-grandson this holiday season. The Heatons are the parents of Claremore Progress Sports Editor Rick Heaton.

PHOTO BY RICK HEATON

Part I in a series on the effects of cancer

Thirteen years ago — at about this time of year when the leaves begin to turn and fall, and leave a colorful blanket on midwestern lawns — my family was all happy and loving life. With the holidays approaching, we were excited about spending time with each other and taking some much-needed time off from work.

Happy one moment — and the next moment, our lives changed forever.

Before Thanksgiving, my mother's doctor found a suspicious lump. And on Thanksgiving day, as we were sitting down to dinner at my aunt's home on Beaver Lake in Arkansas, we got the phone call nobody wants to get — the results of a biopsy revealed that my mother had breast cancer.

Suddenly, our Thanksgiving feast didn't look at all appetizing. All of our hearts fell to our stomachs as we put away the food and jumped in the car to visit her doctor and learn of our next steps.

Let me first say that a person doesn't get cancer, the entire family gets cancer. It affects everyone. And I imagine everyone in the world either knows of a loved one, friend or colleague that has had some form of cancer.

So off to the doctor our family went. That was one of the scariest trips I have ever traveled. We had no control. We had no plan and no idea of what awaited us. I remember the silence as we drove.

I looked out the side window at the world going by, knowing it might never be the same. I watched as other cars were driving along their merry way, probably people going to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal with their families, not knowing what we were going through in our car. It didn't seem fair.

At that moment, life seemed cruel. It was cold outside, sure, but I remember everything being gray and foggy. Dark and bitter. I was more angry than scared. I was being a bit selfish, I guess. I just wanted my mother to be OK.

During the drive, I had so many thoughts going through my head.

• Why her? This was one of the sweetest women to ever walk this planet. Why is she being punished?

• What if this cancer is terminal? How can I wrap my head around this?

• What will happen to my father? This will crush him.

Eight years later, my father would get a different form of cancer. During the same day my wife Pam and I were waiting for our first grandchild to be born, we found out my father had Burkitt lymphoma, "a form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in which cancer starts in immune cells called B-cells. Recognized as the fastest-growing human tumor, Burkitt lymphoma is associated with impaired immunity and is rapidly fatal when left untreated." At least that's what it said on the internet.

But that was a different nightmare altogether.

After my mother's doctor told us of the breast cancer, the impending mastectomy and the grueling chemotherapy treatments she was scheduled to go through, I had to ask — “Is my mother going to die?” Those words escaped my throat like they were covered in razor blades. I never thought I would have to say those words. I couldn't get them to come out, but I had to know, even if the answer would cause my happy little world to implode. And the answer was not what I was hoping for.

"Maybe."

"Maybe" is not much to wrap your fists around. "Maybe" can't prepare you for battle. I'm one of those people that sees a problem and then tries to solve it immediately…and "maybe" left me in limbo, a waiting game that will cause you to go stir crazy.

My father was there for my mother, as we all were. But he took her to all of her appointments. Made sure she took her medications. Cried outside in the yard when he was alone for fear of worrying the rest of the family. My sister heard him…something he may still not know to this day.

After all she went through, 13 years after that diagnosis, she came out the other side and remains cancer free. Her care plan worked, and we all were relieved.

And my father's reward for being her caregiver and the leader of this family? It was now his turn.

Five years after his 2012 diagnosis, he is also cancer free. He still takes IVs, sitting for hours at a time at the hospital where he lives, and my mother must undergo several procedures each year to make sure her cancer hasn't returned. They spend a lot of time at clinics and sitting on paper-lined hospital tables. That is their life now. They have become used to it.

When you have cancer, you are never in the clear. I can't imagine waking up each day wondering if this is the day it all comes back. But so far, so good.

My father is now 84 and my mother just turned 80.

They recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.

They are battle-scarred, for sure. They each have the after effects of the poison called "the red devil" used to kill those cancerous cells. But they are still here, alive and kicking. They survived long enough to see their first great-granddaughter, whom they met for the first time during Christmas of 2012. And they plan on meeting their first great-grandson this holiday season.

They took care of each other, mom and dad. They protected each other. Fought for each other. Healed each other. Isn't that why you get married in the first place?

They are even more closely bonded because they went through hell together to stay with each other and their family. They didn't want their life together to end. But it all could have ended so differently.

Yes, mom and dad are here. They won the battle, and are still winning a never-ending war. My sister and I are so proud that we were raised by such ferocious fighters.

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