Alicia and Michael watch the UO Ducks football game from a skybox at Autzen Stadium in 2011.
As if she’s preparing for a storm, Alicia Heer “watches and waits
” to see if her husband’s cancer will stay at bay or progress.
“It’s hard to accept not doing anything,” Alicia says. “Sometimes, I call it ‘wait and worry.’ We know something bad is inside of him, and we want it out. But there’s no way to eradicate it, and we don’t have control.”
Alicia’s husband, Michael, is 42 years old and living with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)
. Diagnosed in July 2008, the moment is forever etched in her memory: Michael received the phone call while pulling into the driveway, Alicia in the passenger seat and pregnant with their third child.
She worried, “Will he die? And if he dies, how will I manage being a single mom?”
Alicia and Michael with their three children. Photo by Kim O'Neil on Oct. 27, 2011.
The doctor was calling with results from a needle aspiration
on a lump in Michael’s neck that revealed he had cancer. Referred to Willamette Valley Cancer Institute and Research Center, the Heers met with Dr. Peter Kovach
who, at first, didn’t expect Michael needed treatment for five to 10 years. But his cancer progressed aggressively, and he began his first round of chemotherapy in December 2009.
When chemotherapy ended the following May, Dr. Kovach and the Heers returned to the “watch and wait” phase, monitoring his condition with regular blood draws and monthly doctor visits.
He is now participating in a clinical trial overseen by Dr. Jeff Sharman
, WVCI’s research director.
“We have the best team of doctors,” Alicia says. “Soft-spoken, Dr. Kovach can deliver unhappy news with compassion and honesty. And Dr. Sharman is so smart and funny.”
Married for 14 years, Alicia and Michael enjoy camping at Waldo Lake in August 2010.
Alicia tells other caregivers that it’s OK to feel frustrated, upset and lonely at times. She thinks that camaraderie with other caregivers, whether they’re supporting someone with cancer or any other disease, is important. She’s thankful for a supportive group of friends and family, and she uses Caring Bridge
, an online network, to keep others updated on Michael’s journey.
Life hasn’t stopped since cancer came into her family’s life, Alicia explains, but their perspective has changed. At 39 and 42 years old, Alicia and Michael are dealing with emotions and considerations that most people don’t face until later in life.
Everything is magnified, she says. “The good times are 10 times better, even if that’s a small moment shared together, like reading the news over a cup of coffee and listening to our kids giggle.”
But the other side is also magnified, Alicia continues. “Michael and I have underlying anger, pain and sadness. It can make for short tempers and tears. The ones closest to us bear the biggest burden.”
An annual tradition, the Heers select a Christmas tree at Campbell's Tree Farm this December.
The Heers have been honest with their three children, who are eight, six and four years old. “I give them headlines and few details unless they ask for them,” Alicia says. “When they ask if he’s going to die, I explain that we are all going to die one day, but hopefully not for a long, long time.”
To overcome challenging moments, Alicia says she takes a step back and looks at the bigger picture. Recently baptized, she sees a silver lining because cancer makes the family more conscious of their souls, decisions and blessings.
Both Eugene, Oregon natives, Alicia and Michael have been married for 14 years. The family of five stays busy with basketball and soccer games, and they enjoy camping and spending time with nearby relatives.
Michael continues to work full time for his family’s construction company. Alicia works part time as a bookkeeper for two companies and two nonprofits, one of which is the WVCI Foundation
The WVCI Foundation’s mission is to improve quality of life for cancer patients during and after treatment. Some of its support programs include financial assistance and tickets to cultural and sporting events for patients and their caregivers.
As the Foundation coordinator, Alicia is excited to give back to the cancer center and to help other families like hers. Along with bookkeeping, she is responsible for the Foundation’s donor relations and event coordination.
A lot of people, in trying to support Alicia, tell her to “Enjoy every moment,” she says. “But the reality is that’s not human. Not every moment is going to be perfect.”
Alicia keeps a realistic perspective. And she trusts in a supportive team of doctors, friends, family and her faith, accepting that only time will confirm or disprove the forecast of Michael’s condition.