Friday, October 2, 2015

Flattopper pride

I have two offerings from the internet in honor of breast cancer awareness month.  First, my sister found this website by a woman who, like me, chose no reconstruction and does not wear a prosthesis.  I've written about my choices previously, which can be found here and here.  The writings and the images on the Flattopper Pride website are pretty incredible.  I love that so many of us are rocking the flatness that is our new, original self.

Also, a friend of mine sent me a recent article from the Washington Post on having hidden cancer.  Like me, the author of the piece is living with a terminal diagnosis but outwardly appears to be a healthy human.  She has brain cancer, I have lung cancer.  She was given 2-18 years to live, my prognosis is "optimistic" with continued treatment indefinitely.  She and I both live each day to its fullest potential with infrequent thoughts of our disease, until the quarterly scans remind us of our precarious position between sickness and health, inflicting doubt about our ability to live.  It's a lovely article.

Tomorrow I am going to walk in the Race for the Cure with my family.  I walked it for the first time last year only three weeks after my mastectomy.  I'm excited to be a part of the excitement again this year, and this time with a clean bill of health.  Maybe I'll see you down there!  :)

Friday, September 25, 2015


I'm going to interrupt my Olympic hiking posts to interject a Washington D.C. post.  Last week I traveled to D.C. to receive an early career scientist award, and several members of my supportive and loving family joined me.  It was an overwhelming experience because I kept feeling the gravity of good fortune:  to be successful, to be supported, to be alive.  Also, I had to give a 5-minute acceptance speech, and I was a bit nervous about that.  Despite the weighty emotions, it was such a wonderful experience!  My grandparents rode a subway for the first time.  My daughters visited the national monuments on the Mall.  We visited the National Zoo and caught a glimpse of the newborn panda on the PandaCam.  It was spectacular.    

Below is a copy of my speech, which can also be viewed at minute 33 by following this link.  Don't be alarmed by the login.  Just type in your info and login.    

Heather's acceptance speech:

Thank you very much, Joon.  I am so very honored to be here today accepting this award from ARS.  I am especially honored to be here among the many outstanding ARS employees who are also being honored today.  Perhaps the other honorees will resonate with the strange feeling I have of receiving an honor for what has most certainly been a team effort.  Dozens, if not hundreds, of people have contributed to this achievement, starting with my husband Ian and my loving and supportive family, some of whom have traveled from Iowa to be here today, including my grandparents.  Thank you for being here to share this moment with me, as you have time and again throughout my career.  My team also includes the fantastic doctors, nurses, friends, co-workers, and even acquaintances who navigated me through two diagnoses of breast cancer in the past 5 years, and whose support was critical to my survival. 

I want also to thank the wonderful support staff and scientific colleagues at my location in the beautiful Ames, Iowa who facilitate my research and outreach endeavors.  It is impossible to name all of the mentors and collaborators who are in my heart to thank, but I would like to name those whose guidance and intellect have been critical throughout my career:  Jo Handelsman, Thad Stanton, Al Klingelhutz, Shawn Bearson, Torey Looft, Karen-Cloud-Hansen, and John Bunge.  Thank you for paving the way, or for helping me to pave the way when the way could not be found. 

My scientific impacts have been in the field of microbial ecology, in particular regarding antibiotic resistance gene diversity.  You are perhaps familiar with antibiotic resistance in terms of “Superbugs”, which is a word for pathogenic bacteria that have become so resistant to antibiotics that we can no longer treat them with antibiotics.  I don’t study Superbugs, but I’m interested in the reservoir of antibiotic resistance genes in the environment, how resistance genes move among bacteria, and in alternatives to antibiotics that might prevent the emergence of new Superbugs.  My research has helped to define resistance gene diversity in both pristine and antibiotic-impacted ecosystems, from Alaska to the pig gut.  I hope that the data my collaborators and I generate will inform scientifically sound policies to reduce the risk of making more Superbugs, thus improving health and food safety.         

I’d like to conclude by making two comments to my daughters.  In high school I took an AP chemistry class taught by a first-rate teacher, Mr. Ferrell.  One day following an exam, Mr. Ferrell tried to comfort the lesser-achieving students by assuring us that we’d all hit our wall someday.  “Everyone hits their wall,” he said.  Ever since that day, I have been fearful of my wall, wondering how high it would be, how wide it would be, would it hurt when I hit it?   Daughters, I am happy to report that there are no walls, only doors, and it is up to you to walk through them.

 Second, in 2005 I was representing the Graduate Women in Science organization at the University of Wisconsin’s Committee on Women.  I was attending this committee meeting because graduate students in Madison were not entitled to maternity leave of any kind, even if it was unpaid.  I had researched several other universities who had mechanisms for maternity leave for graduate students and was presenting my case to the committee.  Afterwards the one male member of the Committee said, “Women think they can have it all!”  Daughters, I am happy to report that with the right support and some hard work, yes, you can have it all.

I am humbled by this award, and I am grateful to ARS for being a door and for being a part of my having it all.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Pyrites Creek

Ryan parked the car at Grave's Creek right next to his vehicle's twin: a green Subaru Outback with Washington plates.  I put on my SmartWool socks, carefully laced up my hiking boots, and settled into my pack.  At this moment when embarking on a journey, I often feel a moment's hesitation:  Did I pack enough socks?  Will the kids be okay while I'm gone?  Did I stow my keys where I'll find them again but not loose them along the way?  This time, however, was different.  This time there was no hesitation.  I knew that I had everything I needed:  my boots, my brother, and the woods.  Nothing else mattered.

Our boots crunched on the gravel behind the row of cars, then stomped over a wooden footbridge into the woods.  Into the woods.

This was the first of many creek crossings.
The path was fairly wide for the first two miles.  Too narrow for two people to walk together, but wide enough to pass oncoming hikers without difficulty.  The first two miles see many day-hikers of folks who hike in to Pony Ridge.  Pony Ridge is a beautiful place where the river has cut through the rock and a large wooden bridge carries the trail over it.  We didn't linger with the day-hikers, though.  We plunged ahead, eager to keep pounding the trail.

Soon after Pony Ridge, the trail became more narrow and less traveled.  Ryan and I spread out a little bit, each lost in our own thoughts.  We were always in each others' sight, but sometimes you don't need to talk in order to enjoy the company of another human.  Especially on the trail.  The rhythm of my own footsteps on the remote soil sent me into a meditative state.  My mind quit chewing on the various problems that had inhabited it for weeks.  I released the problems into Mother Nature's capable hands.  I just walked.
My two feet, carrying me over.

This odd little ptarmigan was hiking alongside us at one point.  I could have picked it up!  
That's a big tree!
 We reached the first backcountry campsite 6 miles from the start.  Ryan and I were both feeling great, so we decided to go another 3 miles to the next campsite at Pyrite's Creek.  I didn't know for sure if I could make it, but I thought I could.  So I did.  When we got there, Ryan gave me a big hug and said that I killed it.  I know I did.  I knew I could.  We arrived at 6:07, and his projected arrival time was 6:30.  We beat his projection by 23 minutes!  I felt rather accomplished.

I also felt rather spent.  After all, I had just hiked 9 miles, mostly uphill, with a pack.  I sat on the sandy bank while he set up the tent and filtered some water.  Soon I was feeling refreshed and able to participate in camp life.  

Ryan filtering some water for us at Pyrites Creek

Our tent, Big Agnes, at Pyrites Creek
This is most of our food in the bear can, with a view of our campsite on the banks of Pyrites Creek.

Ryan made haystacks (deconstructed tacos) for dinner.  Best meal I've ever had! 

We took shots of Herdez salsa from a can to avoid spilling any on the ground and attracting vermin.  Pass the Herdez!

After dinner we were both ready for bed, so we turned into Big Agnes.  It was still light out.  I was asleep by 8:30.

Ryan's girlfriend, A, loaned me her FitBit for our hiking trip.  Afterwards she hooked me up with the data, which shows how intense this first day of hiking was.  I walked 24,935 steps that day.  And I loved every one of them.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Pre-Olympics in Seattle

I arrived in Seattle to one of the hottest and driest Junes the area had ever seen.  My brother and his girlfriend, A, took me out for brunch at a cute neighborhood crepe place.  The coffee was remarkable, and the atmosphere was sweltering.  Few establishments in Seattle have air conditioning, and this restaurant was no exception.  We were sweaty by the time we finished our breakfast.  

Then I set up a temporary camp at their new house while we prepared our supplies for the hike.  I don't know what I enjoyed most:  organizing my clothes and personal items in my pack, or spending time with my little brother in his home.  It's very special to be with someone you love in the place that makes them the most happy.

We went for a walk in the neighborhood for a beer and some supplies.  He had been putting off buying a new tent for awhile, so I was glad to be a catalyst to improve his backpacking supplies.  We went into a local store and he found a Big Agnes-brand 3-person tent.  I referred to the tent as Big Agnes for the duration of our trip.  How could I not?  It's called Big Agnes.  

We walked past a farmer's market that was packing up, and a farmer at one of the stands asked us if we'd like some raspberries.  I said thank you, I'd love some, and he handed me an entire flat of raspberries!  We carried the berries with us to King's pub  where the bartender used them to make us a custom raspberry margarita.  These things only happen on vacation!

Ryan, A., and me at King's pub
Back at Ryan's house he packed our food in bear-proof containers before stuffing it into his pack.  Always a gentleman, he didn't allow me to pack any of our mutual food or equipment in my backpack.  I only packed my own water and supplies.  While he tended to the food, I made us a pre-hike raspberry pie, because that's what you do when you're given a flat of raspberries the night before heading into the backcountry.  You bake them into a pie.

Fortunately I was pretty worn out from my long day of flying, planning, walking, and packing, so I was ready to turn into my cozy bed despite my high level of excitement.  A. had made the guest room very welcoming for me, with chocolate bars, water bottles, and Tim's chips displayed on the nightstand.  I rearranged the decorative pillows to make room for my head, read a few chapters of The Invention of Wings, then snuggled in for the night.

I awoke to the soft morning light of Seattle slanting through the wooden blinds.  This is the day, I thought.  It has finally arrived.  I am going hiking in the Olympic Mountains.

Ryan scrambled some eggs with peppers, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, olives, and cheese.  I ate at their kitchen table, admiring the fine details of their newly updated kitchen:  butcher block table top, self-installed beer tap, tiled backsplash, a potted orchid blooming over the table.  The chickens made their morning clucking noises behind me in the yard.  I could have stayed there all day but I lingered only for a moment; it was time to finalize our packs and hop in the car.

Ryan and his friends have a tradition that on their way out of town to go backpacking they top at their favorite bakery for some treats.  Who was I to stand in the way of tradition?  The bakery was well-stocked with all sorts of goodies and smells.  It was very hard to choose.  I fell back on an old favorite, a croissant, because I love croissants and it is fun to be in search of the world's finest croissant.  I also got a chocolate macaroon that was incredible.  But Ryan hit the pastry jackpot by trying something new:  a chocolate bismark.  Neither of us were familiar with bismarks, but now we can't go back.  It had a flaky and savory exterior, a custard-filled interior, and a light coating of chocolate icing.  It was the best pastry I've ever had.  

Then we were off!  Driving south out of Seattle, west through Olympia, and north up the peninsula.  The excitement was building with every mile.  At 11:30 we pulled into the Ranger's station at Lake Quinault to get our backcountry pass.  The ranger gave us a bit of info about bear sightings, camping in the backcountry, and the weather.  In minutes we were driving down a winding gravel road to park the car at Graves Creek.  

Here we go! 

Monday, August 24, 2015


How can it be that summer is over and today is the first day of school?  Summer went by too quickly, and I have not properly documented my comings and goings.  That's because I've been out living instead of in blogging.  I have begun many stories, and I hope to finish them and post them in the coming days.

Today's story is going to cover several things that happened in the month of July.  At the beginning of the month was my hiking trip in the Olympic Mountains.  It was every bit as incredible as I imagined it would be!  Walking in the woods was a restorative activity after a somewhat stressful year of recovery.  Taking one step at a time, over logs, under logs, and around logs, helped me truly realize just how strong I am.  In addition to the physical achievement of hiking 10 miles per day for 3 days, I had the personal satisfaction of getting away from the routines for awhile.  I forgot how unscheduled a couple of grown-ups could be for a couple of days, and it was rejuvenating.  Plus, my brother was a wonderful host, guide, and companion.  He cracks me up.

A few days after I returned to the office from my backpacking trip, I got a phone call from the Big Boss (my boss's boss's boss in the district office).  He was calling to congratulate me because I won a really big award!  I am an Early Career Scientist award-winner for 2015.  I get to go to Washington D.C. in September to receive the award.  Woo hoo!  I'm so excited!  All sorts of loved ones are going to accompany me to D.C.:  my daughters, dad, stepmom, grandparents, and mother-in-law.  What on earth am I going to wear?  Don't make me buy a pantsuit!!

I was beginning to feel rather legendary when two weeks later I found myself once again in that dark little room, meditating with my yellow paintbrushes while the radioactive glucose worked its way around my cells.  This time I got my PET scan results on the same day as the scan, and guess what?  All clear again!  Boom!  The legend continues!  That's the third clean PET scan in a row, friends.  Well, in the interest of full disclosure, the current PET scan did show a tiny bit of activity on one ovary, but a follow-up ultrasound revealed that there is nothing abnormal going on. So again I say, clear PET scan!  Huzzah!

Two weeks ago, in August, I had a 6-month follow-up with Dr. Medical Oncologist at the other cancer center.  This is my Her2-cancer expert.  She couldn't have been more thrilled with the PET scan results (in fact, I daresay she had a look of disbelief on her face).  I asked if we could stretch out the PET scans a bit, now that I've had 3 clean ones, and she said yes but just a bit.  Her proposed PET scan schedule is every 4-5 months.  Ugh, that's still awfully frequent scanning, but I'll take it.  It'll be 3 PET scans a year instead of 4, which I suppose will make a big difference in terms of my schedule and exposure to radioactivity.  She also still plans to keep me on the Herceptin and Pertuzumab treatments indefinitely, as previously planned, as long as my heart holds up.  I get echo cardiograms of my heart every 3 months to make sure it's not being adversely affected by the treatments.  Again, I'll take it.  Finally, she mentioned that if these drugs ever stop working for me, there are already new treatment options available for Her2 cancers.  Wow!  That's incredible!  I hope I don't have to explore those options for a long, long time, but it's nice to know that they are there.

Two days ago, on Aug. 22, was my one year anniversary since my last hard chemo.  I can't believe that it's been a year already.  Time flies when you're feeling well, I guess.  I am so grateful to have had this year, and I feel ready to snag another one.  Dr. Medical Oncologist said that when I make it to my 10-year survivorship, she can retire.  Thanks for giving me a new survivorship goal, Dr. MO.  Here's to sending you into early retirement!  

Monday, June 22, 2015


I never did figure out the correct pronunciation for Wernigerode.  "Vern-i-grot-en"?  "Vern-e-ger-te?"  "Vern-e-grot-e?"  It was a beautiful and historic town in the Harz mountains in the former East Germany.  The cab ride from the Hannover airport was a harrowing 1.5 hours, including a speedy jaunt on the autobahn.  Despite my lurking carsickness, I was able to appreciate that the German countryside in May was spectacular.  The brilliant green and yellow fields unfolded around every bend until finally the rooftops of Wernigerode appeared.

Overlooking Wernigerode, seeming to jut out of the mountainside, was an enormous 900-year-old castle.  I couldn't see the castle from my hotel room, but I could feel its presence.  On the first night of the conference everyone was escorted up to the castle courtyard for a reception at sunset.  The route wound down narrow cobblestone streets of shops and residences, through the city center, then up a wide switchback to the castle gates.  At the top, the path opened into a garden the size of a baseball field, with a discrete fountain in the middle and surrounded by a low wall and several turrets.  From the garden we climbed a broad spiral staircase up into the castle courtyard, which featured flowering plants and frightening gargoyles.  

We didn't tour the castle that night, but I was enchanted by it nonetheless.  The conference was very busy and full of interesting and new topics to learn and people to meet.  It was also full of sitting. Additionally, the fact that hiking up to it was perfect training for my upcoming Olympic National Park hike was not lost on me.  Therefore on that first night, I made it my goal to walk up to the castle every day of the conference. 

Perhaps the best things about my daily castle hike were the friends I made.  Every day, I invited other conference attendees who happened to be near me when I decided to walk, and a few of them accepted my invitation.  R was so into walking that we walked extra distances and discovered a free zoo and a hiking trail into the forest.  F joined us on another day and delighted me with plans for her upcoming Irish cycling vacation.  It was a delightful break from the conference, and hopefully decent training for my upcoming walk in the woods. 

Photos from my trip (I apologize for not taking the time to paste them in here, but doing it this way saved me an extra download-upload step):

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Heather's big climb redoux

I don't know how this happens, this passage of time between blog posts.  I've thought of about a hundred things to write about, but I haven't taken the time to write any of them.  The main reason is that my primary blogging time occurs after the kids are in bed, but lately I've been stealing that time for exercising.  I think it's a worthy substitute under any circumstance, but particularly since I'm training for something.

I'm pretty sure that this is the first physical goal that I've ever had in my entire life, and it's a good one if I do say so myself.  At the end of June, the spouse and I are taking a trip WITHOUT THE KIDS (they'll be at grandpa and grandma's, so don't feel too badly for them) for the first time ever to go and do this:  Hike the enchanted valley in Olympic National Park!

I am so freaking excited!  I've been craving a mountainous adventure ever since my brother's friend made me this last summer:

So I'm doing it!  I'm going on a big ol' hike in the Olympic Mountains!!

I asked my brother how to train for such a thing, and his response was one word:  Stairs.  I said how many, he said just do a lot.  I said how often, he said whenever you can.  So, I've been walking around this flat town a couple times a week, wearing a backpack filled with old textbooks, and incorporating at least a few minutes of stairs down into the floodplain that is a city park.  It'll do, it'll do.

I've been up to other adventures, too, but I think that they are worthy of their own posts eventually.  Some have been quite poignant and moving for me. I'll find the time to write them up, I swear.  One quick point I can make is that it is clear that my hemoglobin is at long last in the normal range for a healthy human being.  PSA:  Please don't take for granted how fabulous you feel.  Thank your hemoglobin.  It was not until I started feeling so fabulous that I realized how tired I had been for so long.  Every day I feel more and more fabulous.  Fabulous.        

In other news, I'm pretty sure that I forgot to post the news that my PET scan last month was TOTALLY CLEAR again.  That's two clear ones in a row, huzzah!!!!  Not sure yet if I get a longer leash in terms of extending the time between PET scans.  Dr. Oncologist would prefer to have a longer leash and therefore fewer PET scans, but I need to consult with Dr. Medical Oncologist (Her2 expert) and get her opinion.  I'll have that appointment in July or so.  

In the meantime, happy hiking, everyone!