Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Survivor's Story by Heather McCollum

“I’m pregnant?” “Will you marry me?” “There’s been an accident.” “You have cancer.”

Words strung together into phrases like these steal your breath, twist your stomach, and could possibly make you pee your pants. They are the waving flags that signal a “before and after” moment in your life. Like before you met the love of your life and after you met him. Before you were a mom (or dad) and after you held your first child in your arms. We all have them, some wonderful and some terrifying.

Good morning, everyone! I’m Heather McCollum: author, mom of 3, dog-mom of 1, married to my Highland hero, and teal warrior. It has become one of my passions to share my most recent “before and after” moment. I call it “Shouting Against the Whisper.”

Two years ago I had just turned 40 years old. I was busy writing, carting my kids around to school, and working hard to keep my 39-year-old body. I was playing soccer with my husband’s co-ed indoor team and running my dog every day. I wasn’t tired beyond the normal late nights. I had just published my first two historical romance novels and was awaiting the release of my third. Life was good.

I first noticed that my skinny jeans, the ones I could wear easily three days into my period, didn’t zip quickly. I had to suck in. Then I got a pain in my right side. It felt like an ovulation pain, but it continued throughout the month. Odd. I had just been at my GYN to check something five months earlier and everything was normal, so I ignored the twinge.

In the soccer play offs, a man weighing a hundred more pounds than me, kicked the ball toward my face. I managed to fend it off with my hand. I thought for sure the side of my hand was broken and went to see my nurse practitioner. While checking out my wrist I mentioned the bloating and pain. She did a quick feel of my abdomen.

Her brows wrinkled. “I need to do a pelvic exam.”

“For a broken hand,” I teased.

“Something’s not right.”

“I’m seeing my GYN next month for my annual. It can wait.”

“No, it can’t.” She wouldn’t let me leave. She saved my life.

Her exam and then follow-up scans and surgery a week later found Ovarian Cancer spreading rapidly through my abdomen. Because of her, because of that soccer kick, because the doctors moved fast, we caught it at Stage IIc. If I had waited until my annual, it could easily have been Stage III which would have given me only a 20% chance of surviving five years.

The day we met with my oncologist a week after the surgery and she told me my prognosis and all the terrible things I would be undergoing to save my life . . . God, I was lost. After the debulking surgery which removed all my girlie parts, I underwent 5 months of weekly chemo treatments and then 10 more months of chemo every three weeks. I lost my long thick hair, eyelashes, brows, GI health, taste buds, and for awhile my hope. I gained 40 pounds on the steroids and could hardly walk. It then took another 6 months after the last chemo of taking pain killers to be able to walk, eat, and move without wincing as all my nerves grew back.

Yeah…it was beyond rough, but love like I’ve never seen before flooded in: food, cards, notes, e-mails, child care, dog walking, etc. My kids stepped up to help. My 4-yr-old tucked me in on the couch after each 6-hour chemo session. My 12-yr-old designed sea glass jewelry to raise money for research. My 10-yr-old called periodically from the front office at school to check on me. And I had certainly loved my husband before, but after he carried me (sometimes literally) through those long months, I love him a thousand times more.

I learned a hell of a lot during that time. I learned to stare fear in the eye until it blinked long enough for me to catch my breath and I learned that I’m tougher than I thought. I’m convinced that one of the keys to survival is not to give up on our passions. Not just survival from cancer, but survival from all sorts of tragedy. We all have terrible “before and after” moments in our lives. How many of you are surviving divorce, loss, pain in some form or another?

I am a writer. It has always been my passion. Even though I couldn’t write about happy endings (my fiction) during that time, I still wrote about all the lessons that came with my scars. It gave me a way to bleed out my pain and fear. If you too are going through difficulty, I urge you to look for an outlet, perhaps even try a new art or hobby, a way to express yourself and what you are going through.

Life is loud, loud, LOUD, and ovarian cancer whispers. So my husband and I started the “Shout Against the Whisper” campaign to educate women on those whispers. Doing so gave what I was going through some purpose.

The main symptoms of OC are bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency). You should see your gynecologist if you have any of these symptoms almost daily for more than a few weeks. Your doctor should perform a pelvic exam and if anything feels abnormal with your ovaries he/she should follow up with a trans-vaginal ultrasound and a CA-125 blood test.

As for me, I’m in remission! It’s a lovely place to live and I hope never to leave. I’m checked every 3
months for the next few years and will be considered cured when I reach my 10-year anniversary.

Love to all of you out there dealing with your own crises, pain, or struggles. I’d like to hear your ideas for tapping into a passion when life feels like torture. Please also pass along “Shout against the Whisper” to your friends and family, and let woman-kind know about this silent killer. Kiss your kids, smell the flowers, hug your pets, and truly live!

For more information about Heather McCollum, check out her web site at . She can be found on Facebook at and .


  1. Heather, what an amazing story of divine intervention in your life, via a soccer ball. Your writing gift shines through, as reading your post brought tears to my eyes. Long may you live, thrive and write!

    1. Thank you so much, Gemma : )Yes, if I ever see that big brute again I'm going to hug him. Won't he be surprised!
      Have a roll-in-fresh-cool-sheets kind of day!

  2. Thank God for good Doctors! Inspirational...

    1. Yes, I've been blessed with the best, quickest doctors. Thank you, God!
      Have a smell-the-perfect-rose kind of day!

  3. Hi Heather,
    Your story is wonderful. Thank you for sharing it with us today.

    1. Thank you for having me on your blog, Melissa! Each time I can spread the word about OC I feel like I've beaten the disease a little bit more.

      Have a find-a-twenty-in-your-pocket kind of day!

  4. Wow, Heather, as a sister survivor, could I relate! Way to go, you, for finding your footing on such a slippery and treacherous path, and for reaching out to help others conquer the abyss.

    Have a your-screen-is-clean kind of decade! :-)

    1. Thanks, Mac! I'm thrilled to meet another sister survivor : )It's sort of like a sorority but the hazing is MUCH worse.

      And you know - I never feel like I'm off that slippery slope. Just last night I was stressing about a pain in my side before I slapped my paranoia into submission enough that I could sleep.

      Have a smiling-oncologist kind of decade yourself - LOL! Heather

  5. Heather you are an amazingly strong women. I kept up with some of your blogs while you were undergoing treatments and am convinced that your positive attitude made a big difference, not just to your survival, but to those who watched you go through this. As a sister survivor, I believe cancer is sometimes harder on our loved ones because while the patient is living day to day, our loved ones are watching and worrying, living in fear, wondering if we are truly as positive as we say. Patients often put on a happy face for those they love, but I still think that is so much better than wallowing in misery. Plus, the positive vibes an upbeat attitude creates, aids in the healing process. And I don't know anyone who was more proactive about not only surviving, but in getting the word out to others. Heather, you have not only survived, you have quite possibly saved the lives of others. Kudos to you!

    1. Wow, Lilly : ) Thank you. You are amazing yourself. Thank you for the words of encouragement all along the way. Hugs! Heather