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Sharon native and cancer survivor to 'stay the course' with Great Race

| Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

If you're Downtown on Sunday morning cheering the runners in Pittsburgh's annual Great Race, look for the lady in the teal bandana and white Cleveland Indians ball cap.

Don't hold the hat against her. Kathleen Heller is a Pirates fan through-and-through who remembers going to Forbes Field with her father when she was a little girl. A native of Sharon, Mercer County, near the Ohio border, she lived in Cleveland for 3 12 years and roots for both teams.

Heller, 57, is a cancer survivor with an amazing story of determination and persistence whom we should all cheer.

She was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer in January, the beginning of a whirlwind of treatments she finds hard to describe. Heller had been feeling bloated and could not shake the suspicion that something was wrong. It kept getting worse.

“It didn't occur to me it was cancer,” said Heller, who now lives in State College.

And why would she think it was? She had been an athlete her entire life. She played basketball at Penn State. Even as she sprinted past 55, she worked out every day — running, walking and kickboxing.

Because she was so fit, her doctors opted for a tougher treatment, a mixture of chemotherapy drugs given through a catheter implanted in her abdomen, instead of the intravenous alternative. The treatment is so rough, only about 42 percent of those who get it finish it.

Wouldn't you know it? Heller finished it in four months. Her oncologist, Dr. Josh Kesterson of Hershey Medical Center, wasn't surprised.

“She should've been a poster child for this regimen,” he said.

It wasn't easy. Heller estimates she gained between six or seven pounds after each treatment because so many fluids were pumped into her body. The treatments stole her energy, but here's the kicker: Even at her lowest, she reached deep within herself to find the energy to stay active. A few pushups here, a few weights there.

“Even if I could walk 1.8 miles on a treadmill, I was always moving,” Heller said, citing the steady support of her husband, Rich. “When you're feeling that sick, you access your faith and your beliefs and you do what you can and turn it over.”

At her lowest point, she thought of the Great Race, which this year will bring a record 15,500 runners to city streets. Heller ran her first race in 1986 with her sister, Susan Borawski, and finished it nearly every year after.

“I had it in my mind that I was going to make it to the race” this year, she said.

Two weeks after she finished chemotherapy treatments in July, she went to the Arts Festival 5K in State College. She had to walk.

“It was no longer about time; it was just about, ‘How can I finish it?' ” she said.

Heller isn't that philosophical about gynecological cancer, nasty illnesses that affect more than 80,000 women every year. She's convinced that women need to be more vigilant about symptoms and know their body well, especially if they have a history of cancer in their family.

She received good news in late July. Blood work and a CAT scan showed no evidence of cancer.

“It was a nasty detour,” she said about her experience. “I had a belief that I had to stay the course.”

The course brings her to town tomorrow. I'll be looking for that white Indians hat. Can't wait to give Heller a high-five.

Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 o r lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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