Day by day
Part 1 of 3: Every year, the Syracuse community gathers in the Carrier Dome to celebrate cancer survivors, honor loved ones lost to the disease and fight to end cancer. Part One of this series serves to celebrate one of SU’s own survivors.
There’s a feeling that grows as you near the light at the end of the tunnel. The sigh of relief you know will escape your overwhelmed body when you reach your journey’s promising end. “Everything’s going to be OK,” it whispers.
Heather Buchan saw the light in December. And by the end of the month, the Syracuse University freshman would see it disappear the moment her doctor delivered the news: Her cancer had returned.
Nothing could prepare anyone for that. But Buchan learned the day she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 16 that there was never any certainty to living with cancer, and there was no certainty to living without it.
Too young for this
As she got off the school bus, a 16-year-old Heather took off her scarf, despite the winter cold in Clifton, N.J. She felt a giant lump on her neck. When she showed her mom, she reassured her daughter it was probably nothing.
To be sure, her mom took her to the emergency room for a CAT scan, where a biopsy confirmed their unspoken fear: cancer.
“I remember squeezing my parents’ hands,” Heather said in a phone interview. “My mom was digging into my dad’s hand. I was crying. Would I lose my hair? Could I still do things after school?”
Her sister Haley, currently a senior painting major at the University of Hartford, was sitting in the car with her dad when she learned Heather had cancer.
“I said, ‘OK, what can I do? What comes next? Is it curable?’ That was the first thing going through my mind,” Haley said in a phone interview. “Am I going to lose my best friend? Am I going to lose my sister? I couldn’t picture my life without her being in it.
“It was probably the most terrifying moment of my entire life.”
She sat in the car with her dad while they both cried.
For the first six months, Heather underwent intensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Hospital visits eventually became less frequent.
Haley coped by making art. Whenever she felt like she was “going to a dark place,” she poured her feelings into abstract paintings, which she eventually named “The Cancer Catharsis Series.” She documented Heather’s experience in black and white film.
“I wanted to show her firsthand how beautiful she is through every step of the process,” Haley said. “You can’t just wallow in things. Life is so beautiful, and everything happens for a reason. Even if it’s unfortunate, I think there’s a bigger picture.”
She was ready to give Heather the finished documentary after her first round of treatments was over. But it wasn’t the right time yet.
Return to normalcy
During recovery, Heather still had to undergo treatments for 18 months. By January, only one month after her diagnosis, Heather was in remission. The disease was absent from her body, but the possibility of it returning in the future loomed.
Heather continued monthly treatments at Upstate University Hospital during her first semester at SU. She had no trouble jumping into campus life. She became a volunteer coordinator for Habitat For Humanity, joined Community Council and participated in SU’s “Build Your First Year Experience” pre-orientation program.
“I definitely found that since I had been in the hospital so much before that, I was trying to catch up and do so much on campus,” Heather said. “I was sick of doing nothing. I had meetings every day of the week just because I wanted to be so involved, like I was making up for lost time.”
Justin Cole, a senior economics and public policy major and chair of Relay for Life’s advocacy committee, didn’t know Heather had lymphoma until he asked her if she could make a Thursday Habitat meeting. She said she might not be able to attend because of chemotherapy treatment.
“I just literally stood there speechless, in awe of this person who, battling through all of this other crap, all of these treatments that she had to go through, was also doing all of these other things,” said Cole, whom Heather considers a good friend.
When Heather heard SU’s Relay event was more popular than 2010’s Lupe Fiasco Juice Jam concert, she got excited. She had plans to bring in her old hair for Locks of Love.
Haley, abroad in Spain at the time, couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if her sister’s cancer came back. “You can’t help but have that nagging thought in the back of your mind,” she said.
During Winter Break, Heather planned her final scan. She would be cancer-free, she thought. Everything would be good.
Right before the scan, Heather said she had a weird feeling she couldn’t place.
In her last month of school that fall semester, Heather needed a blood transfusion after her blood count dropped precipitously. It was just a cold, she thought.
But that final scan and a biopsy back home confirmed a relapse. During her first streams of consciousness coming out of anesthesia from the biopsy, Heather asked the doctor if it came back. “Is it back? Is it back? Did it come back or not?”Groggy and barely awake, she kept asking. It was.
“I just remember screaming and crying and my parents holding my hands,” she said.
It didn’t feel like “the second time” until Heather began losing her hair. Haley began drawing again.
Heather underwent treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, where a bone marrow harvest would be less painful for her donor. Without healthy bone marrow, cancer patients are unable to make the blood cells needed to carry oxygen, fight infection and prevent bleeding.
Doctors don’t require, but prefer a bone marrow donor to be a perfect match in tissue type. For Heather, her savior is her sister Haley.
“She was so happy that she was my perfect match, she was crying,” Heather said. Her sister giggled in the background as she snapped pictures of Heather without her wig.
“I’m glad I could be the one to give her that,” Haley said. “I would give anything for that girl. She deserves it. All I can say is she’s an amazing girl. She’s amazing.”
The transplant, set for April or May, requires Heather to be in complete isolation for a month on a low microbial diet. Until then, Heather will enjoy time with her family. Her little sister and brother mother her, Heather said, often pat her head and give her hugs and kisses.
Heather won’t be able to attend Saturday’s Relay For Life because of her hospital stay. But she has no doubt she will participate next year.
For Cole, the Relay advocacy committee chair, Heather is the best example of why people should donate to the Relay cause. Cancer doesn’t discriminate, he said, and she represents the randomness of it all.
“She makes you encouraged by her words, by her compassion, by her optimism, that you need to donate,” he said. “You need to help in any way, shape or form that you can because she doesn’t deserve this. No one deserves this. It just motivates you to work as hard as you can to make sure that she’s cured and everyone else is cured.”
Haley is proud of her sister every day, she said. Whether they’re playing outside, trying on clothes or eating at the kitchen table, Haley said she is still documenting Heather’s journey.
“She’s the most amazing person I think I’ve ever known,” Haley said. “She’s so resilient. If there was one word to describe my sister, it’s resiliency. Seeing her trek through all of this makes me proud.”
After the transplant, if her immune system holds up, Heather plans to return to SU in the fall.
“If it’s good, then I’ll be back,” she said. “And if it’s not, then I’ll take a whole year off. People do it all the time. A year is just a year. I don’t really like to let things get in the way.”
Visit dailyorange.com this week to read more about Relay For Life.