Local Teen and Cancer Survivor Heather Clancy Isn’t Defined By Her Illness
She’s too busy making plans for the future.
- Written byAmber Klinck
- Photographed byLauren Pressey
This is a big year for Heather Clancy. She turned 16, she’s thinking about college—prepping with AP classes—and she’s nurturing her passion for art and music. And she has friends who love and support her. “I’ve really found people I can click with,” she says. Bright and talented, quick to smile and incredibly personable, the possibilities seem endless. It’s been a long road to get here, however—one filled with hospital visits, countless tests with minimal answers, numerous specialists, multiple diagnoses, and the weight of managing the perception of her peers, the emotional pain her loved ones were experiencing and her own anxieties.
It began when Heather stopped growing at the same rate as her third-grade peers. “We didn’t know this at the time, but a tumor had started growing on my pituitary gland,” she notes. An MRI was done to determine if there was a tumor, but it wasn’t detected. Heather was placed on growth hormone placement therapy.
In middle school Heather developed diabetes insipidus. “Your pituitary [gland] doesn’t make vasopressin (which tells your kidneys to hold onto water),” Heather explains. “I was dehydrated the whole day; I’d be constantly drinking. I had to do this 18-hour test where I couldn’t eat or drink anything, which is torture when you’re always dehydrated.”
Heather was then scheduled for another MRI. This time her tumor was detected. “Months later I had to do blood work and many spinal taps. I was going to the hospital 24/7,” Heather says.
She saw specialists including a neurosurgeon, endocrinologist and an oncologist. “Finally they just had to do a biopsy and take a little bit out. The second I woke up from anesthesia, I was told it was cancer.”
At this point Heather hadn’t been in school for nearly two months. Her first day back was not a positive experience. “Someone asked me why I was gone,” she says. “I said, ‘I have cancer,’ and they were like, ‘Oh that’s gross; you shouldn’t be here.’”
Weeks before her 13th birthday, Heather started her cancer treatment. “To be honest, I was really emotionally numb during the process,” she says. Nearly every round of chemo resulted in a hospital visit to treat any possible infection due to her strained immune system.
There was a lack of how to handle the weight of Heather’s illness for a lot of her young peers. “I had lost pretty much all my friends during the process because—for whatever reason—they couldn’t handle it,” she says.
Her family was understandably devasted by the possibility of losing her, so while at her weakest Heather was often a pillar of support for those around her. “I was the only one who was like, ‘OK, yeah, this sucks. And I don’t want to do it, but I’m the only one who can keep this stable.’”
When she returned to school in eighth grade, Heather was still doing radiation. “It was exhausting,” she says. “Chemo is a horrible, horrible thing. It’s so terrible in the moment. But in the long-term it’s OK because it doesn’t have those long-lasting [symptoms].
Radiation causes long-term symptoms like fatigue, and it can actually affect your cognition. I am extremely tired all the time, especially with the fibromyalgia [which she developed during her radiation therapy].”
Despite the obstacles she’s had to overcome, Heather is not defined by her illness. “It was a big part of my identity,” she says. “In the eighth grade I came back completely bald because the chemo made me lose my hair, and the radiation wouldn’t let it grow back. And that’s how everyone saw me. I got a wig, but it was really itchy and wasn’t who I was.”
Heather has been in remission since August 2016. Today she’s into art, plays the guitar and sings, writes her own music and loves the outdoors, spends time with her friends and studies American Sign
Language … you know, just because it’s interesting. That girl is living one day at a time with big dreams for the future.
“Getting to know me as a person and not just a cancer figure—it changes mindsets a lot,” she shares. “People are usually viewed as this idea we have for them, and you can’t get rid of that until you the acknowledge that they’re an actual person just like you.”
HEATHER’S YEAR IN HEALTH
I try to stick with an anti-inflammatory diet, which I’ve been working on more recently.
I try to do yoga every day, and I take CBD every day, which does tend to help during flare-ups. I’m a natural person. If I don’t have to take a pill for something, I don’t want to take a pill. I also try to do gentle walking and meditation.
Definitely painting and making art and music, and then working on all my classes. I also take ASL at school. I’m a really visual person, and I actually have always been interested in American Sign Language. I learned the alphabet in third grade.
I just love binging on chocolate. Chocolate, whipped cream and lots of Doritos.