Former YME High School English Teacher Heather Anderson, a native of Minneota survived cancer as a teenager. She shared her experience with free lance writer Scott Thoma in this article that first appeared in the Minneota Mascot on January 15
Nearly 15 years ago, Heather (Fox) Anderson was nearing the completion of her freshman year of high school in Minneota.
She had just started dating a young man named Jerry and she felt as though she was on the top rung of the ladder of life.
But that summer she was knocked down a few steps.
During a time when she had encountered a bladder infection and was being treated by a physician in Marshall, Heather began to get tired more easily.
Then she noticed a lump on the left side of her abdomen. But she figured they were the result of antibiotics she was taking for her bladder infection. But she got even more fatigued than usual.
“I joined a swimming club that summer because I love to swim,” said Anderson, a junior-senior high school English instructor in Minneota. “I was going to run to the swimming pool one day and I only made it about half of a block and I turned around and went back home. I was just wiped out.”
“Then I noticed the lump was getting bigger and bigger,” she said. “You could only see it when I was lying down so no one else noticed it.
When the antibiotics she was prescribed were improving her bladder infection, her mother took her to see the doctor again. This time, the doctor referred her to a specialist in Willmar.
During an examination at the Affiliated Community Medical Centers clinic in Willmar, Heather informed the physician about the lump in her abdomen. When she pulled her shirt up to reveal the growth she was referring to, there was an immediate reaction from her mother and doctor.
“Mom was shocked because it was only noticeable when I was lying down,” said Heather. “She just stared at it with her eyes wide open. The doctor said, ‘I’ll be right back’ and left the room.”
When the doctor returned, she informed Heather and her mother that a CAT Scan was needed to find out what the growth was.
“We didn’t really have any idea what it was or if we should worry about it,” she said.
The CAT scan discovered that the growth was a softball-sized tumor. The Andersons were quickly informed that an immediate trip to the University of Minnesota Fairview Hospital was necessary for further observation and care.
Linda phoned her husband, who was working in Minneota, and told him the unfortunate news. Larry picked up Heather’s then one-year-old brother, Brock, from daycare. Heather’s grandparents, who lived in Marshall at the time, drove Larry and Brock to Willmar.
“We didn’t get to Fairview until after one in the morning,” recalls Heather. “My friends asked me later if I was scared and I told them that my parents were so reassuring that everything would be okay that I really didn’t get scared. I still thank them to this day for being so comforting.”
Shortly after noon the next day, Heather underwent a five-hour biopsy at Fairview and it was soon discovered that she had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that starts in cells which are part of the body’s immune system. That was on July 14, 1999.
“The doctors said that is was treatable, but I would need to have chemo,” Heather said. “I remember asking them if I would lose my hair and they told me that I probably would.”
Back home, Heather’s boyfriend, Jerry, would call her around 9 p.m. every night in the hospital to check on her.
When the first of six sessions of chemotherapy was completed, the Andersons received some encouraging news. Nearly 80 percent of the tumor had already shrunk.
“I didn’t know what the significance of that really meant until I saw the look on my parents’ faces,” said Heather. “They were so encouraged and relieved to hear that.”
The tumor eventually succumbed to the chemotherapy.
Heather did lose all of her hair and she started her sophomore year wearing a wig.
“I would wear it in the halls between classes,” she said. “But once I got in the classroom I took it off because it itched so bad. I was okay with everyone seeing me bald.”
And to prove her point, Heather’s family had Christmas pictures taken; one set with Heather wearing her wig and another without it.
“They told me I could pick which picture I wanted to use,” she remarked. “I picked the one without the wig.”
Even her friends had fun with her baldness, painting her head to look like an eight-ball for Halloween.
And, yes, even Jerry was okay having a bald-headed girlfriend. In fact, he was more than just okay. The couple never parted and eventually married on July 1, 2006. They now have two children, Jaelin and Dax. Jerry works for SunSource, Inc. in Granite Falls where the family resides.
Heather went on to graduate from Southwest Minnesota State, then taught English for five years in Granite Falls and one in Redwood Falls before accepting a position with the Minneota School District before this school year.
She currently teaches junior-senior high English and also a college writing class. And she is an adviser for the National Honor Society.
She was instrumental in having the NHS students hand out pamphlets around town educating and encouraging citizens to contribute toward the fundraiser for the new Cancer Center at Avera Marshall. The NHS students are now collecting pop tabs for the Ronald McDonald House.
“This new cancer center is going to be great,” she said, excitedly. “I wish they would have had it when I was being treated. It was so hard for my family to be so far away from home. My mom would stay in my room with me and my dad would leave my room at night and stay at the Ronald McDonald House with my little brother.”
And because there were no cell phones then to stay in touch with friends, that made it even harder. So another cancer center is wecome in the area.
Heather rarely thinks about her struggles as a teenager now. With small children and a teaching position, it leaves little time to reminisce.
And this coming October will mark the 15th anniversary of Heather being declared cancer free.
“I still have to have a check-up at Fairview every two years,” she said. “I get a little nervous and concerned when it gets close to the date I have to be there.
But my husband has been so understanding and supportive. He knows exactly how to calm me down. I can’t thank him or my parents enough.”