Frieda Weeks got the best gift of her life in 1984 when she gave birth to her daughter Heather.
“She was born on my birthday, Aug. 17,” Weeks said. “The greatest gift I ever received on my birthday.”
Weeks got to keep that gift for 24 years. On June 10, 2008, Heather was diagnosed with an aggressive form of colon cancer. Though she had surgery to remove a tumor on July 1, cancer cells had already spread to her liver and bone marrow. After extensive chemotherapy, Heather, a 2002 Liverpool High School graduate, passed away on Nov. 14, 2008.
But in her brief life, Heather Weeks did what we all hope to do: she made an impact.
A determined soul
A lifelong dancer, Heather attended the University of Buffalo in the honors program, majoring in dance. She graduated in three years, summa cum laude, and immediately left on an international tour with Sesame Street Live. She then moved to New Jersey to allow frequent auditions for Broadway Shows or Broadway Tours; rooming with a Liverpool High classmate. She worked as a character actor at Mars 2112 on Broadway at 50th.
“She loved traveling and performing,” Frieda Weeks recalled. “She loved life. She was a determined young woman. She loved children and animals and was out-spoken. If she thought you were wrong, she didn’t hesitate to tell you. She was fiercely protective of those she loved. Besides dancing, she loved knitting, watching medical shows, and cooking. When she was home from her tours, we cooked together. If we were not together, we often talked on the phone while we cooked.”
In 2008, at 23, Heather began having stomach problems. They became so severe that she had to stop dancing. Initially diagnosed as ulcerative colitis, Heather’s doctor ultimately came to a terrifying diagnosis: cancer.
In a blog she created to inform her many friends of her condition and keep them posted about how she was feeling, Heather reacted to the diagnosis a few days after she found out, on June 29, 2008:
“In the next few days there were many emotions. Sorrow, anger, fear, determination, loneliness. I had to face my own mortality. Not because I believed that I was going to die, but because I had to face the possibility. I was diagnosed with a stage IV cancer of unknown origin. The questions far outweighed the answers. Of course there was a possibility. And facing that was the only way to move past it.
“I am not afraid of death. I am honestly much more afraid of chemo. I know where I am going after I die. I know that I will be at peace. But I am not afraid because I know it is not my time. I have so much more to do. This is only a small step. This is part of fulfilling my purpose. I see how my life, my disease, my diagnosis affects everyone, and I know that I need to get through this because it is only a stepping stone. It is something I need to conquer so that I can help other people.
“God never gives you something that you can’t handle. I truly believe this. As I looked upon my life and my friends and family I know that it had to be me. I am equipped to handle this. I am strong enough to endure this fight. And I have all the strength of heaven on my side. When the Lord is with you, who can be against you?
“I can’t imagine trying to go through this without faith. Without the grace of God to pull you through. He is my strength.
“So here I am, the little engine that could. Small, yet strong. And I will prevail. Everyone asks how I am, and this is the answer. I am completely determined.”
After her colon troubles put her dancing career on hiatus, Heather took a job with the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. She continued to work there throughout her own battle with cancer as assistant to the CEO, Elizabeth Howard.
“She found a new passion and decided to change careers,” Frieda Weeks said. “She felt this was an area where she could make a difference.”
Heather continued to work at the OCRF until she was too sick to work anymore. But she continued to try to raise awareness and money for ovarian cancer. So when she succumbed to the disease on Nov. 14, 2008, her family agreed that they would fight for the same things in her memory. They founded the Hope for Heather Foundation in May of 2009.
“We felt that she would want us to carry on what she felt was important,” Frieda Weeks said.
Indeed, ovarian cancer is an illness that could use some publicity. It’s the leading cause of death from gynecological cancers in the United States and the fifth leading cause of cancer death among American women. Each year, approximately 20,000 American women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and about 15,000 women die of the disease. In 2008, it is estimated that 21,650 women in the United States will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer and 15,520 women will die from the disease.
The symptoms of ovarian cancer are very vague, making it difficult to diagnose. Only 19 percent of ovarian cancers are caught before cancer has spread beyond the ovary to the pelvic region. When it is detected and treated early, the five-year survival rate is greater than 92 percent.
Painting the Fair teal
As a way to reach a large number of women with their message, Frieda Weeks and Hope for Heather have set up a booth at the New York State Fair. Weeks said it was something Heather always wanted to do.
“Heather was a huge fan of the Fair,” she said. “She grew up dancing at the Talent Showcase. While working at OCRF, she wanted to have a booth at the fair to create education. The Fair draws a large number of visitors of all demographics – it is a way to deliver the message to a large amount of women in a short amount of time.”
Beyond the booth, Hope for Heather is hoping to spread a wider message by having everyone wear teal to the Fair on Friday Sept. 2. Teal is the color signifying ovarian cancer awareness. It’s part of National Wear Teal Day, a nationwide effort to raise awareness of the disease.
Volunteers at the booth pass out ovarian cancer literature, including wallet-size symptom cards, book marks, teal ribbons or teal wristbands, available for a small donation.
“We meet many fascinating women with stories of loved ones battling the disease, as well as survivors,” Weeks said. “Our most important job is to educate on the symptoms and warning signs. There is currently no diagnostic test; one in 58 women will be diagnosed in late-stage ovarian cancer. Women need to take control of their health and heed the warning signs.
The booth also has information on the third annual TEAL Ribbon 5k run and walk, which will be held Sept. 25 at the Inner Harbor. Visitors can also pick up a teal ribbon made by a volunteer; the Teal Ribbon Project brought over 60 individuals and civic groups together to make over 30,000 teal ribbons to pass out on National Wear Teal Day. The project was sponsored by Macy’s.
“We fight every day to create education and awareness of this disease to honor what Heather felt was important,” Weeks said. “We are so blessed and honored by the people we have met on this journey. When all is said and done, we are hoping that the Teal Ribbon Project will have reached 50,000 women.”
For more information, visit hopeforheather.org.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.