is the story of Heather Renee Ridley-Fleeman, who on
July 18th, 2004, at the age of 28, lost her battle
to colon cancer. She was my beautiful daughter,
Angela's sister, loving wife to Bart and a friend to all
who knew her. Family and friends were a special part of
her life. Heather's humor and wit during her illness
will always be remembered by those who loved her. Our
hearts will never be the same for having known her.
Heather was born on May 1, 1976.
She was a healthy 6 lb. 12 oz., 20 inch little girl. The
only childhood sicknesses that she had were chicken pox,
a kidney infection, colic, several colds, the flu, a few
allergies and a broken arm. As a small child she had
normal bouts with constipation, but we thought this was
due to the food and the way her body was tolerating it.
At age 11 she slowly starting
weaning herself from eating meat and by the age of 14
was a full-fledged vegetarian. Throughout high school
and college she became an avid health-oriented person
and a health food nut. She watched her carbs, fat
through high school and college she had bouts with
irritable bowel syndrome, and endometriosis, as the
other females in our family have had. She had both feet
operated on and also had surgery to remove her
endometriosis. After college she got a job at Scott's (a
vendor for Wal-Mart) in Bentonville, Arkansas and felt
that she had finally accomplished her goals; college and
a good paying job.
2002 Heather started having more serious stomach
problems. The doctor put her on different types of
medicine trying to control what we all thought was
irritable bowel syndrome. The medicine seemed to help
somewhat but she never really felt 100%. In April 2002,
at 2 in the morning, Heather called me in severe pain.
My mother, dad and I took her to the emergency room.
They tested her for many things with no avail. They
finally did a CAT scan and in the bowel they saw
something; however they diagnosed her with a compacted
bowel, gave her a laxative and when her bowels moved and
the pressure seemed to subside some they sent her home.
(Our first clue should have been the dose of Morphine
they had to give her in the beginning that didn't work
and to the degree that they increased the Morphine to
make her pain go away). So we took her home and although
she was feeling better, she never really got to that "I
feel great" stage.
June of 2002, Heather, Angela, my mother and I went on
our long awaited trip to New York. We had a wonderful
time with so many cherished memories (even though we all
shared a room with only 2 beds and 1 bathroom). During
this time Heather still wasn't feeling the best, but we
still assumed that it was irritable bowel. When we
returned home Heather got back into her usual routine at
work and home. Still having bouts with her stomach and
intestines, she thought this was normal of irritable
bowel syndrome. She was even more careful of the things
she ate. She took Citrucel and medications prescribed by
her doctor, but nothing seemed to help. She was slowly
losing weight and her appetite was getting poor. She
tried different foods to soothe her stomach, but no
matter what she tried, the pain was always there. She
continued to have slight constipation and sometimes
diarrhea and again, we were told it was irritable bowel
syndrome. At one time we even discussed that possibly
her endometriosis was back.
From June to October, Heather's
pain increased in her stomach, her bowels were getting
more abnormal and her weight was dropping more rapidly.
(She never had typical symptoms associated with colon
cancer; bleeding or bloody stools and looking back her
weight loss was so slight at first that you didn't
really notice how thin she had become (weight loss was
another symptom that should have clued me in)). Around
the first part of October Heather called our family
doctor and they called her in some Librax thinking this
would help. One week after taking this medicine she was
still not any better. At this point I told her she
needed to go see the doctor. After examining her he
decided that she needed to see an endocentric doctor.
His office made the arrangements and we began the
journey of finding out what was causing her discomfort.
We met with the specialist and
after he had completed his examination, he told Heather
she might possibly have Crohn's disease and that she
would need a colonoscopy to find out for sure. The test
was scheduled and we were on our way to what we thought
would be the beginning of finding out what was wrong
with her and how to fix it. Heather went home and true
to form she did all the necessary research and knew
everything there was to know about Crohn's, so by the
time she went for her test, she was well prepared.
Heather, Angela and I arrived
early that morning not realizing that we were about to
enter into a journey that would leave us helpless and
our hearts broken. After she woke up, the nurse took us
all into a room with a TV, couch and chairs. Suspecting
nothing, I thought that this was normal protocol.
The doctor came in and sat down
and started telling us what he had found. He showed us
the pictures of the inside of her colon and told us that
there was a mass in her colon and that it had invaded
it. He said that it appeared to be cancer. Cancer. I
never thought in a million years that at her age she
could have a life-threatening disease such as colon
cancer. I caught my breath, looked at my two beautiful
daughters, grabbed their hands and we started praying.
The doctor left us to allow time to digest what he had
just said. We were caught off guard. We cried, talked
and cried some more. Doing what mothers do, I told them
both that it would be okay. We would get through this no
The doctor came back in and told us of a surgeon that he
recommended to do the surgery and that he would make an
appointment for us. We were so devastated at this point
that we didn't know what to do. He also called the
oncology clinic and told them what he suspected and that
we would need a visit from one of the doctors after
Heather, Angela and I left the building in shock. Go,
leave, what do we do? In silence I drove us to one of
Heather's favorite restaurants to get something to eat
and drink. Eat, drink, what was I thinking about? My
daughter has cancer.
Somehow we managed iced tea and some food. My mother
called while we were there and I went outside to talk to
her. I then called my husband and Heather's true love,
Everyone was in
shock. Angela went home to her apartment, I took Heather
home to be with Bart, and I drove home wondering what
had just happened. Could this be? What could I have done
to prevent this? I was her mother and mothers were
supposed to protect their children. I prayed and cried a
lot that weekend and with God's help I gathered myself
up to help my daughter with her biggest job yet to win
this battle called "Cancer."
That next week we received a call
from the surgeon's office, met with him and by that
Friday Heather was scheduled for surgery. We felt we had
to act immediately. When you hear the word "Cancer," you
just want it out, gone, away from you, because you know
that you don't have any control over what it's doing to
We arrived at
the hospital early Friday morning. When it was time for
Heather to go to surgery, Bart and I walked alongside
her bed, and as they took her through the surgery doors,
I knew then that my child's life would never be the
same. Bart and I were hugging and crying, not knowing
what we were going to do if we lost her, but the one
thing I was sure of was that I would not let my daughter
face this battle alone. I knew that God would be our
strength and that with his love, we would be able to
seemed as though her surgery took forever. Finally the
surgeon came out and told us that it was cancer and it
had invaded her colon. He performed a transverse
colostomy on her right side and took out 12 lymph nodes.
There were several areas on her ovaries and uterus.
Thinking that it was endometriosis, he burned these off
instead of doing a biopsy on them. He told us that it
would probably be Monday before they would know what
stage of cancer she had. Well that was it for me! I
needed answers right now! If I knew what we were dealing
with, then we could plan, organize and work on our
strategy. Heather would be expecting answers. What was I
going to tell her when she woke up? I turned, walked a
few steps and collapsed in Gene's and my mother's arms,
and then on Sunday the surgeon told us that it was stage
IV and asked if I wanted to tell her. I told him yes, I
would do it.
But how do
you tell your child that she has cancer and even worse,
it's stage IV which means her life expectancy is
possibly 1 to 2 years. Later that evening after everyone
left I told her. We talked and cried together. I told
her that I would be with her always, no matter what. She
was in the hospital a week and when I took her home her
sweetheart, Bart, proposed to her.
Heather had to wait for 6 weeks
before she could start chemotherapy. So, during her
convalescing time she did lots of research on the
computer. She checked out treatment places, treatment
options, and research places. When we met with the
oncologist for the first time, she was ready for him.
She gave him all the information she had collected. The
doctor had already contacted several treatment centers
that wanted to see her. Together Heather and the doctor
decided on the two centers that they thought would offer
her the best treatment plan. Heather's age played a big
factor in who might be interested in her. (Less than 1%
of her age group develops colon cancer).
The oncologist then called
Sloan-Kettering and MD Anderson. Finally we thought we
were on our way to the start of good things.
The day before Thanksgiving we
were off to New York City to meet with one of the
doctors. The meeting did not go very well. The doctor we
met had no people skills, was not prepared and as far as
empathy, well, he had none. He walked in complaining
that her records weren't sent ahead of time. (They were
- we had verified this 2 days before we left). Then he
looked at Heather and said "So you have stage IV cancer
- what do you want me to do about it?" We were shocked.
As we stood there with our mouths open, he walked out.
Heather wouldn't let Bart and me have a swing at the
doctor or throw him out the window. She said we didn't
travel all this way to go home without any information.
(Leave it to Heather to be the level headed one). The
doctor came back in and Heather told him that we were
there to find out what type of treatment they would
suggest and what their results were. He told her that
they didn't have anything to offer her. We left there
feeling defeated, disappointed, scared and hurt.
Within a week we were on our way
to the Houston treatment center to meet with one of
their doctors. It was a whole different story at this
clinic. The difference was amazing. They were so
supportive of Heather. She was treated with compassion
and respect. We knew immediately that this was the
clinic Heather was meant to go to. The doctor, along
with the oncologist in Bentonville, determined the type
of treatment. It would be administered in Bentonville at
the Highlands Oncology Clinic, with re-evaluations every
3 months in Houston. The two treatment centers worked
together to give Heather the best possible treatment.
This gave her a feeling of security. It was very obvious
that both clinics put their patients' feelings and
welfare above anything else.
So, back to NW Arkansas we went.
Before Heather's treatment began she created an Excel
spread sheet to monitor her blood count levels, types of
chemotherapy, and any other type of treatment she might
have done. This gave her an opportunity to control part
of what was happening to her. She knew that she couldn't
control the cancer, but she wasn't going to let it get
the best of her. I never realized how strong willed she
was until she started this journey. To this day I'm
doctor and nurses were a God-send. They treated her with
love, respect and compassion. Heather and I came to feel
as though they were our family. There was a special bond
between Heather, myself and the staff. Today I still
feel this connection.
December 16th, 2002, Heather started her long journey
- Oxaliplatin and Camptosar (F5U) - 12/16/2002 to
- Camptosar (F5U) - 6/17/2003 to 10/14/2003
- Erbitux - 4/13/2004, 5/4/2004, 5/18/2004, 6/2/2004,
6/16/2004 and 6/30/2004
- Erbitux and Camptosar - 4/20/2004
- Erbitux and Avastin - 4/27/2004, 5/11/2004, 5/25/2004,
6/9/2004 and 6/23/2004
- Taxol - 6/1/2004, 6/15/2004, 6/22/2004 and 6/29/2004
- Procrit once a week - 12/23/2002 to 4/1/2003 and
7/1/2003 to 4/20/2004
- Aranesp every two weeks - 4/27/2004 to 5/25/2004
- Iron IV - 2/4/2003, 6/15/2004, 6/22/2004 and 6/8/2004
- IV Fluids and Antiemetics - 2/1/2003, 2/2/2003,
4/10/2003, 12/11/2003, 12/12/2003, 1/30/2004, 2/23/2004,
2/24/2004, 5/3/2004, 6/2/2004, 6/4/2004, 6/11/2004,
6/18/2004, 6/24/2004, 6/25/2004, 6/29/2004, 6/30/2004
Pet Scans: 12/20/2002, 2/26/2003, 5/27/2003, 11/3/2003
CT Scans: 11/25/2002, 12/10/2003, 3/11/2004, 5/28/2004,
Houston: CT scans, blood tests - during her 3 month
Usually before we
left for the clinic Heather would become nauseous. She
was given medicine for this. Sometimes it worked.
Sometimes it didn't. Heather's therapy would last
anywhere from 4 to 6 hours, depending on the type of
treatment. Sometimes she would sleep during this time.
It seemed to help her get through treatment (if you can
call anything helping). She was so sick. Sometimes she
could barely lift her head. This usually lasted 3 days.
Then she would start feeling better and all of a sudden
she was ready to fight again. Sometimes between her
chemotherapy, we would have to make special trips to the
clinic and hospital for fluids, nausea medicine and
iron. I can't express to you enough how wonderful the
nurses and doctors were to her. They made what was a
horrible experience into something more tolerable. They
took such good care of her. Heather actually looked
forward to seeing them. They were her Angels here on
one of the first drugs that she was given. She had
extreme sensitivity to it. Hand-foot syndrome
(inflammation, pain, swelling, sometimes cracking and
bleeding), Neuropathy (cold hypersensitive, numbness and
tingling). Just to reach into the refrigerator she would
have to put on gloves. The cold was like needles to her.
This was one tough drug. Heather lost some of her hair,
but never all of it. However, it doesn't lessen the
impact on the person it is happening to. Some or all, it
is just a reminder that you are not in control of what
is happening to your body.
It is very important for someone
who has cancer to keep their life as normal as possible.
Everything else is out of their control. At the
beginning of Heather's treatment, she made a list of all
the things she wanted to accomplish before she left us.
The most important one was the wedding of her dreams. On
September 6, 2003, at Magnolia Gardens in Springdale,
Heather and Bart were married. It was beautiful. She
planned it all in between chemotherapy, nausea and trips
to Houston. She was determined to keep everything as
normal as possible. This disease was not going to take
over her life. She finished her chemotherapy one week
before the wedding and started back up a week after.
During Heather's treatment, she
and the doctor decided to do genetic testing for colon
cancer and female cancer. She wanted to do this so that
we would know how often her sister and other family
members needed to be tested. The results were that she
did not have any of the genes that have been identified
to date. In one way, we were glad, but on the other hand
we wanted an explanation of "Why Heather?"!
After the treatments we went back
to MD Anderson for another checkup. Heather was told
that her cancer was progressing like super glue encasing
her abdomen and that they did not have any more
treatment options to offer her. Surgery was not even an
option. They spoke of clinical trials and that possibly
if she could get selected (selected, this is the key
word) for one, it might extend her life, or possibly she
might be the one that would be cured by a different
treatment. She felt that she had nothing to lose and her
will to live was so great. Now you just can't go
anywhere and say I want to participate in a clinical
trial. First you have to find a place that does them and
then you have to be selected for it. Normal protocol is
that you go for an interview, they examine you and if
everything fits their criteria (criteria, that's the
other key word) and they are doing a particular trial on
your type of cancer, you are selected. This didn't look
to be in Heather's favor. Most trials had already
started and there wasn't enough time to go through their
selection process. However, the doctor said he would
call San Antonio, but not to get our hopes up. We left
with our heads down and our hearts torn. On Sunday I
spoke to my church and told them what we were up
against. That day the whole service was given to prayer
for Heather. The next day Heather received a call that
she had been accepted into a program and they asked how
fast we could get there. It was a miracle. I know in my
heart that God answered our prayers and gave her this
extra time. The next day we left for San Antonio. We met
the doctor. He told us that he had been gone and that
when he came back, her name was on the list. He wasn't
sure how it got there, but we knew. God had answered our
trials started in January and ended in March 2004. We
traveled by plane once a week for 12 weeks. The therapy
was brutal. She was given extreme amounts of Oxalyplatin
along with the trial drug. At times she couldn't even
walk because of the swelling, cracking and bleeding of
her feet, and the nausea was horrible. She never
complained or gave up. She was determined to finish the
trial, to live just that much longer. She was such a
fighter. Heather finished 4 cycles of Capecitabine and
the research drug, but to our dismay, there was very
little progress in the destroying of the cancer, and she
was dismissed from the program. So here we were with
nowhere else to turn. We were all extremely upset, but
even though you could see in Heather's eyes the hurt and
disappointment, she wasn't going to give up without a
fight. When we got back to Bentonville, the first thing
she asked her oncologist was what can we try now?
On April 13, 2004, the oncologist
started her on two new drugs that had just been released
for colon cancer (Erbitux and Avastin). He then added
Camptosar and Taxol, thinking that maybe she also had
another type of cancer. At this point we were willing to
continued chemotherapy until the end of June. On July 1,
2004, she took her last IV fluids for dehydration. Bart
and I took her home and tried to make her as comfortable
as possible. Heather's pain was increasing, so the
nurses put a morphine pump on her.
Several of the nurses came daily
to stay with us and even stayed a couple of nights with
us. But Heather was still fighting and was not going to
go until she was ready. I wanted to spend every moment
with her. There was no way I was going to leave her. She
told me more than once she was glad I was there but was
sorry I had to go through this. I told her that I was
glad that God allowed all things to work for me to be
able to be there with her and that I wouldn't give that
chance up for anything. This was where I was meant to
be. I was there when my precious child was born and I
wanted to be with her when she made the transition from
earth to Heaven to be with Jesus.
Even through her pain, Heather was
concerned for other people, especially the patients in
the clinic. She told me once that everyone should be
given the chance to be in a clinical trial. Sometimes
this is all a person has left because it gives them
hope; another reason to keep fighting. However, most
clinical trials are in other states and there are not
enough trials for the amount of people who have cancer.
(Most people don't know that while the experimental
drugs are free, the other drugs you take for nausea,
injections, the airfare, local transportation, room
accommodations, restaurants, etc. are not). Heather said
that we needed to offer more clinical trials here in
Northwest Arkansas and because of Heather's concern for
other people, the Battle for Hope evolved.
While the cancer destroyed her body, it didn't touch her
soul. As one of the nurses said, "Heather always ran the
show; you never could put anything over on her!"
And so on July 18, 2004 at 3:53
a.m., as I spoke to Heather about Heaven and that Jesus
was waiting for her, she left this earth to be with Him.
A note to Heather from Mom:
Heather Renee, I am utterly amazed how graceful you
handled this disease that caught you off guard. Never
complaining and always trying to make it easier for us.
On your wedding day I told you that the moment you
graced my life I was blessed and that I thank God every
day that he chose me to be your mother. My love for you
is unending. On one of the nights when you couldn't
sleep, you asked me how long would it be before I got to
Heaven with you. I told you I didn't know, but that for
you it would be a short time, for me longer. Then you
asked me how you would know when I got there. I told you
to "just watch the gate for me;" I'll be there when I
complete the job that God has for me.