Cover Photo: Jennifer Robison Photography
Photo credit: Marxy Lindsey Photography & Monumental Arizona Weddings

Wearing a denim work shirt, red and white polka dotted bandana and a determined smile, Heather Nicholls perfectly channels the look of the iconic Rosie the Riveter, the famous World War II symbol of strength and pride. Heather’s strength, however, easily surpasses that of the 1940s character. While Rosie represented the women who worked in factories and kept the home fires burning during WWII, Heather represents a different war, one which men and women are battling every day.

At age 26, Heather was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Alarmed by blood in her stool, she visited the doctor and had a colonoscopy. The results showed that she had a small polyp in her rectum. In only a month, her doctor performed a localized surgery to remove the polyp.

 

“I didn’t know before the surgery if it had spread anywhere else but at the time they believed it had not,” Heather said. “After they removed the polyp, they said most likely it hadn’t migrated anywhere else but if it had, I would know within the next few years.”

The recovery was a smooth one and though she had always been healthy, she began eating cleaner and increasing her fitness. A few years later, at age 29, she was in the behe met through her job as a speech therapist in Shreveport.Not only did she feel great, she recently started dating Clint Waldron, someone she met through her job as a speech therapist in Shreveport.

But one evening in February 2016, Heather began experiencing symptoms again and immediately feared the worst. She scheduled an appointment with her doctor, and after receiving the results of the colonoscopy, her fears were realized. The cancer was back and this time it would be a fight.

“I’m sure it freaked him out. I called him when I found out I had cancer and I was just blubbering”

“I was terrified. I was afraid. I had breakdowns, just panicking and all I could think is ‘I’m going to die. I’m going to die this time,’” she said. “I had to get through that process, talk to people, learn to pray, and learn to quiet my heart.”

Heather’s brother, Luke, was getting married around that time and rather than distract her family with the news, she opted to wait until the wedding was over. Instead, she leaned on her new boyfriend Clint and called him as soon as she received the results of the colonoscopy.

“I’m sure it freaked him out. I called him when I found out I had cancer and I was just blubbering,” she said. “He was at work and I told him ‘I have cancer’ and was just panicking and crying. He didn’t really say much — he just said, ‘hold on. I’ll be right there.’ I think he clocked out and then went and got me some gummies and some treats. And he came over and held me and cried and said ‘it’s going to be OK.’”

Photo credit: Marxy Lindsey Photography

Clint and Heather had not even been dating a month when she received the diagnosis. It being a new relationship, friends and relatives expressed concern that maybe Clint would run away; maybe he would fear falling in love with someone diagnosed with cancer.

“I mean, he’s a young man, a few years younger than Heather, and for him to go through this with her and not leave but to stay… I call him a first responder. He ran to the fire rather than away from it,” said Holly Nicholls, Heather’s mother.

They were still getting to know each other. They were learning about each other’s dislikes, favorite colors and tastes in music. Everything was still new and cancer wasn’t going to keep Clint from learning more about her. So, the young couple prepared for the fight of Heather’s life.

Shortly after Heather’s brother was married, she told her family. The news was difficult on everyone but it was especially trying for her father, Dr. Tim Nicholls, an internist in Shreveport.

“Your first response is, how did this happen? What did I do wrong? How did we miss this? Why didn’t we catch it early? You start blaming yourself,” he said. “Then you switch to accepting it and going through the steps of diagnosis and treatment.”

Heather has no history of colon and rectal cancer in her family and with routine screening tests for colorectal cancer currently recommended for people age 50 and older, it is rare for someone her age to be diagnosed with the disease. However, a study led by researchers at the American Cancer Society, which published Feb. 28 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, may change the way the medical community screens for colon cancer and rectal cancer. The study’s findings show an alarming increase in the rate of these cancers among young and middle-aged adults in the U.S. Those born in 1990 have double the risk of colon cancer and quadruple the risk of rectal cancer compared to those born in 1950.

As an internist, Dr. Nicholls said he has seen many patients over the years with colon cancer and he said the cases of colon and rectal cancer in younger patients seem to be increasing.

“You don’t think about it being a young person’s illness so much,” he said.

Heather’s first step of treatment was to have a port implanted in her chest for her to receive chemotherapy. Then she would undergo a procedure called an ovarian transposition surgery, performed by Dr. Robin Lacour, a gynecologic oncologist with Willis Knighton. This was done to remove and protect her ovaries from the field of radiation.

“It’s kind of an experimental surgery because she said it’s possible you could have kids, but it’s possible you may not and we won’t really know until you try,” Heather said. “It was an elective surgery. We could’ve chosen not to do it and just go forward.”

The next step in her treatment was chemotherapy and radiation at the same time. Heather wore a 24-hour infuser of chemotherapy for seven weeks and she received radiation therapy five days a week during that seven-week period using the proton therapy system at Willis Knighton Cancer Center. Since proton therapy is more targeted, surrounding healthy tissue is undamaged by radiation. Tumors near vital organs, such as the heart and lungs, can be more safely treated.

“The machine was awesome. I felt like I was in really good hands,” Heather said. “You get to pick the music that you want to listen to but you have to lie there and be really still.”

By the end of the seventh week, Heather said she was fried. Left with no appetite and blisters on her hands and feet, she felt old and was in pain. She rested for a month before continuing on to the next phase of her treatment in July 2016: the colon resection performed by Dr. Michael Stratton. Part of her colon and her rectum was removed. As a result, she had to wear an ostemy bag to allow the resection time to heal.

A month after the colon resection, Heather began a second round of chemotherapy. This time, the dosage was higher and she would receive eight treatments over 14 weeks.

“Everything starts running together at that point. I was trying to take care of my bag, keep it empty and I had a lot of problems with the bag. It wouldn’t stick right and I had accidents,” she said. “And then the chemotherapy also made me feel pretty bad too.”

Between battles with the ostemy bag not functioning properly, Heather learned to adapt to what she described as a “humbling experience.” During her treatment, she continued to work as a speech therapist and she found herself using her sense of humor to get through any embarrassing moments.

“I think that’s something that everyone who’s had an ostemy would understand. You just are going to have accidents,” Heather said.

“There were days at work where I wouldn’t know what happened but it would just break loose from the skin and I would have liquid output all the way down to my knee. I would keep underwear and pants in my car.”

In fact, the ostemy bag would be the source of many problems during her treatment. But even through all the bad, Clint stuck by her side. During one of Heather’s worst nights, she was learning how to use the ostemy bag and could not get the bag to adhere properly. Her parents, family members and Clint rallied around, trying anything to help her through the frustration and anguish. Heather had a breakdown and it was Clint who could calm her down.

Photo credit: Marxy Lindsey Photography

“The day before, I told Clint ‘I love you’ for the first time, and he didn’t say anything back. I was like ‘it’s ok if you don’t say anything back; I just want to say that I love you,’” Heather said. “The following day, after my little breakdown, my parents had just driven away and he had just taken my trash can out to my front yard. I was walking out to meet him and I said ‘I’m so sorry for my outbreak, hon’’ and he said, ‘I love you too.’”

The second round of chemotherapy was hard on Heather. Half of her hair fell out. Her vision started to get blurry and she felt like she was walking around in a haze. Her mother and father would encourage her with these words, “just do one more day.”

Faith and family were constant forces aiding in Heather’s treatment and recovery. Deeply rooted in their Christian faith, the Nicholls family prayed every day. While visiting the WWII Museum in New Orleans, Holly was inspired by some of the Rosie the Riveter memorabilia. In fact, Heather’s grandmother worked as a riveter in a B-29 factory in Detroit from 1943-1945 during WWII. The family adopted the “We Can Do It” slogan and the Rosie the Riveter image, and this symbol became a reminder for the Nicholls to stay strong and have faith. Holly even gave postcards with Rosie on them to the women in the family as a reminder to pray every day.

“We have T-shirts and I gave all the girls in our family Rosie the Riveter postcards to remind themselves to pray for Heather,” Holly said. “I think everybody sort of develops their individualized twist or approach and this was one of ours.”

Photo credit: Marxy Lindsey Photography

In the fall, Clint proposed to Heather in a romantic setting on his family’s property in Cotton Valley. Without hesitation Heather said ‘yes.’ The end of her treatment in sight, it appeared her happily-ever-after wasn’t so far ahead.

Photo credit: Monumental Arizona Weddings

Heather rested for a month after chemotherapy before having the colon reanastomosis surgery or an ostemy reversal. She also had her port removed, and in December she was on the road to feeling like herself again.

“I feel really good. The treatment was hard. It lasted about a year but I’m really glad I did what the doctors recommended,” she said. “From what I understand, the outcome is really positive for people who catch colon cancer early and go through all the treatment.”

SEE ALSO: Q & A: With Dr. Grimes, Colon and Rectal Surgeon

As for advice for young people worried about colon cancer? Heather’s words of wisdom are simple.

“If they are having any kind of symptoms, I would just stress that they get them checked out. Everyone wants to avoid it but don’t ignore any symptoms. Go get a colonoscopy,” she said. “It’s worth it for the peace of mind or to catch it as early as possible.”

On April 15, Clint and Heather were married at the Grand Canyon surrounded by the red rocks and southwestern landscape, a place they always wanted to visit.

Heather is proof there is life after cancer. The support she received from her family, doctors and her new husband were vital in her recovery and her faith and strength were the weapons used to win the war. Rosie would be proud.