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The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Unwavering strength

By Natalie Hale

U student Heather Reichman knows the human body better than most people.

The senior biology major’s crash course in pharmacology, oncology and physiology was not acquired when she took biology classes, though.

Heather’s familiarity came when she battled skin cancer.

She said the details about the day she was diagnosed are fuzzy in her mind, but she tackled the task of recounting her journey with resounding strength in her voice.

Heather was enjoying a vacation in California with friends when she noticed a strange mole above her knee.

Not thinking much about it, Heather resolved to worry about it when she returned home and promised friends she would have it checked out.

The plastic surgeon who saw her a week later assured her it was probably nothing, but a biopsy was performed just to be safe.

After returning home from another trip out of town, she received a message that would alter her life.

“I had a call that it had been melanoma and that I had an appointment with an oncologist,” she said with a shrug. “You just don’t really think about it.”

The oncologist she met with at LDS Hospital spared her no detail. He told her that from the length of the fibers found in the mole, the cancer was probably between the second and third stages — meaning it had spread outside the mole.

It was serious.

The doctor said they needed to remove five to seven more inches of skin from the area to make sure the cancer did not spread. They would also have to remove a sentinel lymph node, which is the next place the cancer would be seen if it did in fact spread.

“The day after my surgery,” Heather said with a deep sigh, “I went into the hospital room — it was positive for (third-stage) melanoma.”

The road from there was rapid, she said. She was sent back for an additional surgery to remove more than 12 additional lymph nodes. Parts of the cancer had been found in some of them.

It had spread.

The treatment

Heather was transferred to the Huntsman Cancer Institute for her treatment. She was briefed about the protocol for treatment, which would include alpha-interferon shots for one year. With this treatment, Heather said, she could stay home and wouldn’t have to lose her hair.

But then a unique opportunity arose for her.

The Huntsman Cancer Institute offered an alternative for Heather: biochemo, a treatment that combines the alpha-interferon treatment with three rounds of chemotherapy. It would take three months with minimal hospital stays, but she would now have to lose her hair.

Even though the treatment was shorter, Heather was hesitant about enduring chemotherapy.

“It seemed scary,” she said. “It’s sad to see someone going through chemotherapy, and that’s how I was relating to it.”

Heather chose to be treated through biochemo since she felt the researchers would watch her more closely and keep better track of her condition well past the initial treatment.

The most difficult week

The Monday Heather arrived at the cancer institute, she was equipped with a tri-hickman.

The device was inserted into a main blood vessel in her neck leading directly to her heart. It would be used to deliver her chemotherapy drugs, draw her blood and replenish fluids in her body for the next three months.

Heather explained that the device was used because the chemotherapy drugs are so potent that they cause veins to collapse.

From Monday through Friday, Heather was treated with the chemotherapy drugs and interferon.

“I don’t really remember my first week in the hospital,” she said. “I was so sick.”

Heather counted the minutes to 5 p.m. on Friday when she could return home for two weeks to rest before her next treatment.

It was hardly time off.

She still had to get shots every day at to build up her immune system and boost her white blood cell count. Without them, she wouldn’t be able to receive the next treatment.

Heather remembered the side effects of the interferon being the worst. “You feel so achy, old, disoriented and cranky,” she said, laughing.

As Heather became accustomed to the treatments and her body’s reaction to them, she began to accept what was happening to her.

“Each round got better,” she said, “but it definitely was no walk in the park.”

Heather found she began to focus more on the positive things in her life, the lessons she was learning from her ordeal and how others were benefiting from it, as well.

From bad to worse

“The worst day was the day I started losing my hair,” Heather said. “That day I started to look sick.”

She didn’t want to shower or brush her hair. Nothing brought her satisfaction.

Her family realized she needed someone else to help her — someone who could really relate to her.

They called a friend of the family who had finished her cancer treatments just as Heather’s began.

“This woman was my savior,” Heather said.

The advice from her friend gave her a new sense of empowerment over her situation.

“You just have to get a hold of it.” Heather said as she recounted her friend’s advice: “You can’t control the chemotherapy, you can’t control the nausea — but you can control your hair falling out. Just shave it all off; otherwise, it is just going to keep coming out.”

Three days later, she followed her friend’s advice and shaved her head — and it wasn’t as difficult as she initially thought it would be.

“It is a very emotional time to shave your head,” she said. “But it’s OK — you get used to it.”

Losing her new family

As Heather thought back on her treatments, which ended in August 2006, she quietly fell deep into thought before speaking in a wavering voice.

“My first treatment was the hardest. The second was the smoothest — but the third was the most emotional,” she said.

“It was finally hitting me. When you live in a hospital…it kind of becomes your family. You see them every single morning?you know every single nurse. They become your family.”

Spending the past three months of her life at the hospital had become the norm to Heather. Now that she doesn’t require treatments, her emotions about leaving the new family she found at the hospital are mixed.

“The last day of chemo I was supposed to be so excited that I was done,” she said. “I had just lived through a living hell, but I was bawling because I didn’t know what to do.”

Following the final shots of interferon, Heather began to reconstruct her life.

Returning home was a relief.

The biggest difference

Heather credits her survival to her family, which was with her through the entire experience.

“I am lucky because I had so much support from my family,” Heather said.

Her mother, Cathy Reichman, set aside her scholarly pursuits and dedicated all of her time to helping her daughter heal.

“Each piece of news seemed to get worse,” Cathy said. “It is really difficult to see your child go through this and be totally helpless.”

But Cathy knew from the diagnosis that her daughter would make it out of this experience alive.

“I would tell her, ‘Heather, you have to think about the positives, you are going to get through this. You are going to be OK,'” Cathy said.

Heather Reichman’s four sisters and her father also played a vital role.

“They were there for me whenever I needed them,” Heather said. “But the best thing they did for me was living their lives. It made me want to get better.”

Ironically, Heather’s cancer bound her family together more tightly as each family member took part in the process of her battle with cancer.

“This experience really brought us as a family closer,” Cathy said. “That summer we all stayed home and fought cancer — that is what you do as a family.”

Moving on

Luckily, the first CT scan after Heather’s treatment came out clean.

Heather had beaten h
er cancer.

She was determined to return to school three weeks later. She felt the only way to get her life back in order was to do what she had usually done before her cancer, which was working and going to school.

“I feel very lucky,” Heather said. “My body reacted pretty well. I got sick, obviously, but I got through it and I bounced back really quick.”

Heather believes it is important for people with cancer to realize there are more positives that come out of the battle than negatives.

“The key,” she said, “is to find one thing — just one thing that will keep you positive, something to hold on to, and knowing that it is going to be there in the end. You have to take control of what you can and get through it.”

In an effort to return her strength and give back to the community, Heather has been training to participate in the Salt Lake City half marathon on April 21, almost a year to the day of her diagnosis.

Running with a group called, “Hometown Heros,” Heather is raising money to donate back to the Huntsman Cancer Institute. To donate, visit

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