This year’s Dyersville Area Relay for Life is scheduled for Friday, May 28, with a full slate of events scheduled.
Each year, Relay for Life recognizes a group of cancer survivors, and one of this year’s honorees is Heidi Huisman, of Dyersville, who recently received the all-clear and has been declared cancer-free.
“I’m doing very, very well,” said Huisman in a recent phone conversation. “I’m back to work today for the first time. I actually just had my last surgery two weeks ago, so I’m 100% cancer-free and don’t have to worry about anything but the CT scans every three months or so.”
After suffering a series of strokes in late 2019, with no clear cause, one of Huisman’s doctors recommended a colonoscopy. That’s when a rectal tumor was discovered, leading to an extended series of treatments to beat the disease.
“In December 2019 on Christmas eve, I had a stroke. It was mild and I thought it was more of just a pinched nerve. I really didn’t think anything of it,” said Huisman. “But later, I thought to myself, ’This just isn’t right’, so we went to the ER and they told me I’d had a stroke. They put me in the hospital, gave me some blood thinners and I was in there a day-and-a-half. It took me about a week to recover.
“I started bleeding on the blood thinners, so my doctor suggested a colonoscopy, and they found a pretty large stage three rectal tumor. So, I did radiation and oral chemo, but they told me I’d need a permanent ostomy bag for the rest of my life. I said ‘Wait a minute, can I get a second opinion?’ That was in May 2020, and by the time I got in at Iowa City, it was July.”
In Iowa City, Huisman learned the cancer had spread.
“They told me radiation had taken care of a lot of it, but we’d like you to do the chemo. But they told me I had a spot on my liver,” she said. “So then, I did eight rounds of infusion chemo. That shrunk everything down to absolutely nothing, but they did surgery just to make sure. So, on December 20, 2020, I had 15 inches of my colon removed, a third of my liver, and 25 lymph nodes.
“I had an ostomy bag for three months, but they reversed that two-and-a-half weeks ago, so now I just have to relearn my bowels because I’m missing that 15 inches.”
Some advanced technology is allowing Huisman to monitor her health moving forward.
“I’m pretty lucky. I’m doing quite well. When I had my surgery in December, they said there was a less than 1% chance of live active cancer cells. So, chemo and radiation did what it was supposed to do,” explained Huisman. “I considered not doing the chemo and the radiation. I questioned everything I did.
“The doctors in Iowa City are amazing, and even though I was a stage four, they said the prognosis was good. Now I am at the NED stage — No Evidence of Disease. This year I have CT scans and blood work every three months.
“With the blood work, it’s actually something new. It’s called Signatera, and they take blood from me and they take a specimen of my tumor and do a DNA match. Now I can go in and just have the blood test. If there is any DNA of the tumor in my blood, it will show up on the Signatera test and they’ll know I have cancer again. Right now I have that test every three months, but that will go to six months and then a year and so on.”
On the road to a full recovery, Huisman explained the support of family, friends and others near and far has been essential to her return to health.
“Friends and family for sure have been my support. The hardest part of having cancer during COVID was I had to do almost everything alone,” said Huisman. “Lots of friends in the community sent well-wishing cards and gift cards, or I’d find a dozen cookies in the mailbox. It was a great thing to have the community behind me.”
Those interested in more information on the 2021 Dyersville Area Relay for Life can reach out to Cindy Willenborg, at Carquest.