By TEDDYE SNELL
Tahlequah native Gail Heaton has been a hands-on supporter of the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life in Cherokee County since the mid-1990s.
Eighteen months ago, she became far more intimate with the disease than she would have ever cared to imagine.
“I’ll never forget it. My sister-in-law, Sue and her husband, had become recreation vehicle enthusiasts, and decided to spend the winter in south Texas,” said Heaton. “The encouraged us to buy an RV and go with them. I had retired from teaching to care for my mother and father, but both had passed away.”
The last day in November, the Heatons took the plunge and bought an RV.
“And on Dec. 1, the doctor called me and told me they had an opening for a mammogram,” said Heaton. “Well, of course, I went. They found something, and sent me to the St. Francis Breast Cancer Center to have a biopsy. I remember on the drive to Tulsa having this weird feeling that it would be cancer.”
The biopsy confirmed Heaton did, indeed, have a deep lump in one breast, and her doctor gave her two options.
“Dr. Chad Johnson told me I could either have a lumpectomy or a mastectomy, and let me know it was important for me to make my own decision,” said Heaton. “I opted for the lumpectomy, and he agreed with my decision.”
Heaton said the lump was located deep in her breast, and could not be felt with her bare hands. Fortunately, it was also in the early stages.
“So they removed the lump, and I began my seven weeks of radiation shortly after that,” said Heaton. “And let me tell you, after seven weeks’ radiation, my breasts were like brown shoe leather.”
Heaton has been cancer-free for 18 months, and feels very lucky. She returns for checkups every six months, her most recent being mid-September.
“I had a scare when I went for my annual checkup,” said Heaton. “They performed a mammogram on both breasts, and found a little spot that looked like a sail on my unaffected breast. We went on to do an ultrasound, and found out it was nothing, but it was scary there for a minute.”
Heaton recommends all women have regular mammograms, and hopes they’ll get involved with Cherokee County’s Relay for Life event.
She became interested for two reasons: her sister-in-law, Lela Stowers, had been an active advocate for many years, and her father had a connection to losing someone with cancer.
“My dad was a twin; he had a sister,” said Heaton, with a catch in her voice. “Her first diagnosis was breast cancer, and then later, she contracted cancer in her bones and major organs. Losing his sister was so devastating to my dad, I just had to get involved.”
Heaton enjoys the Relay’s Luminaria ceremony. Survivors or those who have lost a loved one to cancer purchase lanterns, which are often decorated, including the survivor or loved one’s name.
At 10 p.m. on the night of the event, the luminarias are lit, and often the names of each person for whom a luminaria was purchased is read.
“After the names are read, we walk one lap in total silence,” said Heaton. “It’s very moving.”
As for worrying about a relapse, Heaton keeps a positive attitude.
“I love being outdoors,” she said. “I love to mow the lawn, and before I had knee trouble, I’d walk miles every single day. It didn’t matter if it was 30 degrees or 102. Some people recognize me not by my name, but by seeing me out every single day walking.”