“I had so much love, support and help that I can’t even begin to feel sorry for myself."
Craig resident Joan Heinz on her battle with breast cancer
Spunky. Strong. Independent.
All of these words describe Joan Heinz.
Tiny in appearance, Heinz is a spitfire raised in the West.
“I was used to hearing, ‘Buck up cowgirl,’ all my life,” she said.
So when she was diagnosed with breast cancer 1 1/2 years ago, Heinz had a difficult time learning to accept help.
“There I am, going along with my life and — boom — suddenly everything becomes about cancer and doing everything you can to get through it,” Heinz said.
Taking charge and letting go
Heinz said she was optimistic, considering she had an 83 percent chance of recovery with treatment, but she knew she couldn’t do it alone.
“The first thing I did was sit down and make a list of all the people that could help me, friends and family. A resource list,” Heinz said. “It took everybody to get me through it.”
She said taking charge of the disease and letting people help you are key to surviving.
Making appointments for herself and deciding where she wanted to receive treatment also were important. Although she thinks doctors want the best for you, she said, she knew it ultimately would be up to her to take charge of how she received her treatment.
“Those were some long days. I was physically tired, but my brain wasn’t,” Heinz said.
As a way to reward herself for the grueling treatments, Heinz allowed herself what she called “one fun ticket” per day.
The fun ticket allowed her to make choices based on what she wanted to do rather than what she needed to do.
“If I wanted to ride my horse, even for five minutes, that’s what I would do rather than clean the house. Something to turn my day around,” she said.
Heinz said some days she didn’t have the energy to do anything.
But she doesn’t want sympathy.
“I had so much love, support and help that I can’t even begin to feel sorry for myself,” Heinz said.
Mosquitoes and hair
Heinz received aggressive chemo treatments that became progressively harder. She said she knows she could have prevented the aggressive treatments if she had received regular exams and caught the disease earlier. By the time she was diagnosed, the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.
She said she encourages women to get their mammograms every year and to stay on top of their health exams.
Ever the optimist, Heinz wanted to discuss the positive side effects of her chemotherapy treatments before delving into anything negative.
“For one, mosquitoes wouldn’t come near me. I could go outside whenever I wanted,” Heinz said with a laugh. “And secondly, you know those annoying hairs you have to pluck? No more of those.”
Heinz did say the treatments caused her fatigue beyond description and the loss of her hair, which she had grown down past the middle of her back. She said by the time she received her last treatment, every cell in her body and brain was screaming that she just couldn’t do it.
“But I did it because you have to,” Heinz said. “Besides, in the end, you feel better and your hair grows back.”
Learning to live
Her advice for others dealing with cancer is simple:
“Allow people to help you. Prioritize your energy. Take a friend with you to doctor appointments with a list of questions you wanted to ask. That way, they can remind you if you forget something,” Heinz said. “And when you’re recovering, give yourself a break.”
Heinz finished up her chemotherapy treatment in September of last year. She still has to have blood work and other tests done every three months to make sure the cancer hasn’t come back.
“It’s an interesting way to live. It’s always kind of hanging there,” Heinz said.
She said a week or two before she goes for the tests, she always starts to worry. It’s become a cycle.
“It changes the way you live. Every day is a gift. And I have a lot of kindness, love and generosity to pay back,” she said.
As a reward to herself for surviving, and as a way to prove to herself she could take care of someone else, Heinz recently adopted a dog from a rescue shelter in Steamboat.
“They called me and told me about her. They said she’d had a rough year. I was like, great! So have I,” Heinz said.
That’s how Rally came to live with Heinz.
“She and I have both had to rally,” Heinz said. “That’s why her name is so fitting.”
Heinz said she’s been a great companion and very well behaved for having such a tough year.
As for her fight with cancer, Heinz said she wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
“When I was diagnosed a year and a half ago, I was told one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer,” Heinz said. “I hope I’m the one in eight. That I’m your one. So no one else has to go through it.”
Darian Warden can be reached at 875-1793 or firstname.lastname@example.org