Cancer in the Time of COVID

December 16

Heather Hinton
For many people 2020 has been a year of adjustment. But for Heather Hinton, COVID has created more complications as she waits for a bone marrow donor.

I picked up the phone and right away, I knew something was wrong. 

In nine days I had an appointment with my doctor to review some test results; I had such low energy lately. Quarantine dragged everyone's energy levels down but this felt different. After a spinal infection back in January I had a follow-up visit with my doctor in September where I'd assumed she would tell us that I wasn't taking enough iron or that I simply needed more self-care. Here they were, though, calling me much sooner than expected.

"We've received the results of your tests. Can you come to the office in the next couple hours?"

I stopped the homeschool lesson I was leading for my four children and told them to hang tight, then called my husband and asked him to come with me to see the doctor. He left our church, where he works as an associate pastor, and together we went to review the results. As anxious as I was, I never expected to hear the next thing she told me:

"You have acute myeloid leukemia. In two days you have to head to the hospital for four to six weeks. They'll let you know what happens from there." AML is a type of blood cancer that progresses rapidly. That meant time was of the essence to get it under control.

Shocked is an understatement for how we felt as my husband and I sat at lunch, processing the news. Under normal circumstances this would be a challenge, but in a time of a pandemic? It was devastating. Not only would I have to leave my family, but I wouldn't even be able to be in the same room as my kids during my time in the hospital. Family and faith are everything to me and I was going to have to face the biggest challenge of my life without them at my side.

We came home to tell the kids the heavy news - mom has cancer and has to leave in less than 24 hours. I love them to pieces and it hurt to watch the four of them process the news in their own ways. We tried to focus on the positives, like how they'd be staying with their cousins so it would feel like a sleepover every night! After lots of hugs and tears, though, we packed our things and put our faith in God that this was just another speed bump in a long and loving journey.

I don't have anything against hospitals but I was not ready to be back inside one once again so soon. But I was fortunate that, at the time of my diagnosis, COVID cases were on the decline so my husband was able to take a leave of absence from our church and stay by my side as much as possible. He is my best friend and my strength and, simply put, I needed him. We would spend time together in my room and when I needed rest, he would take long walks around the hospital campus to let me sleep.

 

Heather with her family visiting

For the first couple weeks we were able to be creative with family visits. The kids would come and we would meet at the entrance of the building, or have lunch outside when we could. FaceTime was always great but you don't really get to know how four kids are doing on a short video call. 

Unfortunately our first round of chemotherapy didn't take and I was going to have to be in the hospital for longer than we initially expected. At the same time, the hospital had to increase visitor restrictions once again as COVID cases rose in our area. 

Heather with a visitor

On a Monday morning my husband he started to feel run down. "I don't know what's going on," he said. I told him that if he wasn't feeling well he should probably leave. He packed up and hustled out of the hospital, worried that he might give me an infection. On Thursday morning, he called me in shock: he'd taken a COVID test after he'd left the hospital and it just came back positive.

I won't sugarcoat it: I fell apart. While I believe God gives us the challenges He feels we can handle, this just felt like so much. Not only was I now in the fight of my life, but now I had to face it without my husband at my side.

As I searched for answers and strength it was the words of other patients on our floor that gave me a new hope. They told me something I won't ever forget: recovery is now my job. That job required taking the right medicine, eating every day, taking care of myself, and keeping my faith.

Heather having a social distant visit!

Meanwhile, our community stepped up and helped us out in ways that I couldn't have imagined. Our kids alternated weeks staying at my sister and my best friend Dori's houses. Church members prayed for us and delivered meals to me at the hospital and to my husband, who was quarantining alone. I received phone calls every day to check on me, and even hospital staff checked on us to see if there was anything we needed. Our friends even began doing cheek swabs to find a donor match for me! 

Swabs are the easiest way to help someone with blood cancer. A simple cheek swab gets sent away to determine whether you are a good match for someone on the donor list. Even if you aren't a good match now, you stay on the list until you are 63 years old so the opportunity to save someone's life could still be in your future.

With this advice, and the outpouring of support from everyone, I was filled with a new sense of purpose. I was tasked to take this on, and I would do it. My faith brought me this far. I couldn't tell this story with any sort of joy without my faith. It reminds me that God is writing a bigger story than I can understand from this side of Heaven.

Heather and Brian

After a rough start to the fall, we received some incredible news at the beginning of November: my antibodies had risen to a place that they felt comfortable letting me leave the hospital! We planned to surprise the kids and as I rode home in the car my heart swelled with excitement. I couldn't wait to hold them all in my arms again. We got home and walked on to the back deck. I rapped at the door and when it opened, everyone erupted in joy. Hearing their voices again in person never sounded better. The hugs never felt fuller. The joy never felt more exciting. For the first time in months, our family was together.

And now? My job is to wait for a match. I have to keep myself healthy so that I am ready. I will be prepared when we get the call that someone on the donor list is a perfect match for me and has made the incredible and humbling decision to give a piece of themselves to save another person's life. 

Heather and Brian after haircuts

Discovering you have leukemia in any year is difficult. The added challenges that 2020 brought has tested us even more. But I know that through my family, my faith, and a potential donor, I'll get back to spending my time with my kids and my husband, back to helping them grow and learn, back to "normal," with a deeper gratitude for the daily gift of life.

Click here to learn more about how you can save a life through DKMS.