“If I can do a Viennese waltz today without gasping for air, it’s a great day.”
Heidi Wells Has Followed Her Instincts and Is Optimistic
The early 1970s was an exciting time to be in Washington, D.C. That is where Heidi Wells landed, working for Senator John Tunney of California with the goal of becoming a press secretary. With the Watergate Committee forming in February 1972, there was a lot going on.
“Later that year, I found a lump on my neck and was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” Heidi says. “I’d never heard of it. I was 24 and thought I was going to live forever.” Thanks to Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, she was able to see John Potter, MD, who oversaw oncology at Georgetown University Hospital.
“Dr. Potter, who was very well-known, told me they were working on a cure. I was in a fog, but I never thought I was going to die. I had things to do; I had to play tennis, go to New York and see the world.” But first, Heidi endured biopsies that seem primitive today and left her with a 12-inch scar. That was followed by massive doses of cobalt radiation.
It would take many months to fully recover. “The next year or two was tough,” Heidi recalls. “My diagnosis brought an abrupt end to my dreams of becoming a press secretary. I was exhausted, and I found out that I could get sick at any minute.” When she attended a cocktail party, took one bite of an appetizer, and threw up–in a room of political insiders–she saw it as “a defining moment.”
“I knew I had to be careful, so I changed my diet by going into health food mode, and I began exercising again as soon as I could. I also realized that I didn’t like politics, so I went back to take more journalism classes and listened to my professor who said: ‘Just get out there and work.’ I focused on writing and got more confident.”
She had every reason to be confident. “I had moved from the west and was pretty intimidated when I started working in Washington, D.C.,” explains Heidi, who grew up in Utah and attended college in California. “Then I got Hodgkin’s and put my mind to improving my health. I knew I’d been through something other people couldn’t imagine. After Hodgkin’s, I was a different person–a much different person.”
Monthly Giving for a “Wonderful Cause”
Now living in Chicago and married for 30 years, Heidi knows that she followed her instincts after recovering from treatment. “I believe that participating in a research study back in the early 1970s changed my life,” she says. “Researchers were trying to determine why some people with Hodgkin’s survived while others passed away. For example, they checked to see if the survivors had been diagnosed at a lower stage or received more radiation. They concluded that those who survived had one thing in common: optimism. This was proven by the extensive psychological testing we had.”
Heidi has encountered late effects, mainly affecting her lungs. “My husband and I enjoy ballroom dancing –it’s our hobby –and were driving to a dance event in 2014 on a hot day when I began gasping for air,” she recalls. “I couldn’t breathe and realized I couldn’t dance.” An x-ray showed that her right lung was full of fluid, which was drained three times. An upcoming trip to China had to be canceled.
“No one had a clue why this was happening; pleural effusion usually is caused by heart failure or cancer. But a wonderful pulmonologist, Dr. Colin Gillespie, suspected it was due to the radiation I received. He performed a procedure where he placed talc in a way that kept fluid from clogging the lung. He wanted me to connect with other Hodgkin’s survivors and suggested I look for groups on FaceBook. That is how I found Hodgkin’s International.”
She appreciates the kindness and compassion she has observed in group members, as well as the resources the organization provides. “The newsletter has a good mix of research, and the website features Zoom meetings and lots of profiles,” says Heidi, who decided to donate monthly to Hodgkin’s International. “It’s a modest amount, but I wanted to help. Erin Cummings, who founded HI, is a huge part of why I give. I’ll continue to donate because it’s a wonderful cause.”
Heidi is motivated to understand all aspects of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, including what may have caused her to be diagnosed. “When I participated in that research study shortly after I was diagnosed, I asked one of the research staff if they had any clues on what causes Hodgkin’s.
“He noted that the nuclear weapons testing that occurred in the Arizona desert throughout the Cold War appears to have caused cancer in those who lived in that region. By coincidence, our family regularly drove between Utah and Arizona throughout the 1950s. While I don’t dwell on ‘why me?’ I found this fascinating. In a way, it made me feel that the cause of my cancer had been out of my control.”
For a woman in her early seventies, Heidi considers her health to be quite good. “Some days my lungs feel tight, and I have limited capacity. But I feel fine, I’m optimistic, and I’m enjoying life. If I can do a Viennese waltz today without gasping for air, it’s a great day.”