Team Heather

Strength from Within

Article I was asked to write for Family Magazine on the challenges of being a co-survivor

Posted by impersonaltrainers on February 7, 2009

I am Shawn Gardner, a co-survivor of breast cancer, and I work for the day when it is not a global movement for men like me to wear pink, but a fashion statement to do so. I long for the moment when I no longer worry about my mother growing a lump, but growing old and cranky instead. I want to awake on June’s first Saturday and race not to save a life, but simply to beat the one running next to me. I await the point where it’s not my duty to know about breast exams and preventions and treatments, but about how to make the perfect margarita. I yearn for the freedom to not raise awareness and money and consciousness, but to raise my glass in a toast. I dream of an end to breast cancer.

I have dreamed of this end to breast cancer since the moment, on a rainy April morning in 2001, a doctor did what so many doctors must do – walk into a waiting room where the desperately concerned family of a loved one awaits news that could crush their world. In this case, the loved one was my 25 year old baby sister, Heather. The news was of a lump she found several mornings earlier when her right arm brushed against it as she rolled lazily in bed. The lump, we were told, was most certainly malignant, up to 10 years old, spidered out in all directions, spread into most lymph nodes surrounding it, and would certainly take her life. I rushed out of the hospital into the rain to phone my other sister, Renee. Heather was in trouble.

This was the defining moment of my life; in that instant I became a breast cancer co-survivor without even knowing it – my work in the breast cancer movement had begun.

Calls were placed, pleas were made, waiting lists reshuffled, and Heather found herself admitted two days later into the renowned Ireland Cancer Center. A team of 12 specialists (surgeon, radiologist, oncologist, plastic surgeon, counselor) realized the gravity of the case before them – a 25 year old woman with Stage IV Breast Cancer. We knew, as breast cancer survivor and co-survivors, we had a long road ahead of us, but little did we know exactly what Stage IV Breast Cancer brought with it.

Treatment plan. Tested blood. TRAM flap procedure. Med port surgery. Chemotherapy. Neupogen shots. Massage therapy. Radiation. Bone scans. More radiation. Late night hospital runs. Falls. Brain tumors. Full brain radiation. Music therapy. Carcinoma Meningitis. Experimental chemotherapy. Ommaya reservoir. Oral chemotherapy. In-home hospice. Paralysis. Hearing loss. Last visits. Sight loss. Blessing of the Sick.

Heather Gardner Starcher lost her battle on the evening of September 29, 2002, surrounded by family and friends – co-survivors all.

For me, this position of co-survivor has carried with it so many roles – representative, brother, speaker, recruiter, cheerleader, activist, researcher, manager, writer, coach, fundraiser, and more. Of course, my survivor, Heather, no longer is able to fight, so it makes it all the more important for me to wear these different hats – to assume these diverse responsibilities – in order to carry on her legacy, her name, her battle.

At times, these duties feel like too heavy a burden to carry. I am overwhelmed by the demands on my time, my friendships, my energy. In itself, this article’s introduction illustrates the toll being a co-survivor takes on one’s spirit, on their priorities, on their life. The battle is mentally exhausting, emotionally crippling, and, surprisingly, I thank Heather everyday for allowing me the opportunity to act as her co-survivor in this global movement to end breast cancer.

I, like so many others, use the word “battle” so often in my talks and writings about Heather. It is interesting that such esoteric language is employed when relaying the experiences of survivors and co-survivors. “Soldier,” “warrior,” “combat,” “crusade,” “weapons,” “grassroots,” “war” are words ordinarily used by military commanders when referring to their enemy; however, we, in the breast cancer movement, adopt this vernacular because of the daunting nature of our own enemy.

Since that rainy morning in April when this co-survivor was born, I’ve felt the presence of that enemy. I have experienced its power as if I were the one diagnosed. I have spoken of its might in interviews, taken its victims’ stories to the Senate, written of small victories on the page, and worked outside the box to place an emphasis on research, education, screening, and treatment – the work of a co-survivor.

I am Shawn Gardner, a co-survivor, and I wish there had been a cure for breast cancer in 2002. Had there been a cure for breast cancer in 2002, Heather would be a thriving, healthy, happy wife and mother. Had there been a cure for breast cancer in 2002, Heather would be a powerful spokeswoman in the global breast cancer movement. And had there been a cure for breast cancer in 2002, Heather would not have missed so many family memories.

However, in 2002, there was no cure for breast cancer, and my baby sister became just one more woman who lost her own battle. In 2008, another vibrant, magnificent woman will be diagnosed. For me, it is the job of a co-survivor to insure that six years from now, her brother is not writing, “Had there been a cure for breast cancer in 2008…”

One Response to “Article I was asked to write for Family Magazine on the challenges of being a co-survivor”

  1. Nicole said

    Wow. I'm speechless — and that's hard to do. I was diagnosed 1 year ago w/stage 3 breast cancer and I think about my co-survivors all the time. I don't know what I can do to help ease their pain but your article just made it plain that we all must do something. Every year nearly a quarter million women are diagnosed with breast cancer. That's too many. Thank you for fighting for Heather. And for me. And for my aunties. And for my friends. And for the countless women I will never meet but whose lives you are impacting with your efforts. Thank you.

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