When Heather Weeks was facing treatment for cancer, it not only drained her physically and emotionally, but financially, as well.
“She lived over the river in New Jersey, and it was a $100 cab ride every time she had to go into [New York City] for treatment,” said her mother, Frieda Weeks, of Liverpool.
It’s a struggle many cancer patients and their families face. In addition to their medical bills, they have to pay for incidentals — parking at the hospital, transportation to and from treatment, food, hotel stays and more, none of which are covered by insurance.
The Hope for Heather Foundation, created in Heather Weeks’ memory, has stepped up to help. The nonprofit has created an Angel Fund at the soon-to-be-completed Upstate Cancer Center to help women battling ovarian cancer with incidental expenses to help ease the burden on patients and their families.
“We’re very happy to make a donation to Upstate to help women with ovarian cancer with the out-of-pocket expenses that occur with a hospital stay that people don’t normally think about, such as parking, transportation to and from the hospital, rooms at Sarah House for visiting relatives, meals, wigs and scarves, incidental things that can really add up,” Frieda Weeks said. “We recently had a hospital stay for our son in Rochester for 10 days. We were amazed at the out-of-pocket expenses it created for us. We wanted to reach out and make a donation to Upstate because of all the great things that they do and start a fund here for the ovarian cancer patients.”
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.
In an effort to carry on her legacy, Heather’s family founded Hope for Heather in May of 2009. The foundation seeks to raise money and awareness for ovarian cancer, which Heather did in her final job as assistant to Ovarian Cancer Research Fund CEO Elizabeth Howard.
Ovarian cancer is 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.
“There is no test to diagnose ovarian cancer,” Weeks said. “Its diagnosis usually comes in late Stage III or Stage IV. The survival rate has only improved about 8 percent in the last 30 years. We really need to press for research. We really need to raise awareness. We really need women to be aware of the symptoms, because they’re very vague, and to take care of their bodies, and to be proactive with their doctors.”
Because treatment is so aggressive, it’s important to support patients and their families as much as possible. That’s where the Angel Fund comes in.
“[The Angel Fund] will be administered by the hospital,” said Terry Toscano Shenfield, corporate development officer for Upstate. “The social workers, the nurse practitioners, all the people who have direct patient contact, as they see needs come up, as they’re talking with patients and see the things that they’re having trouble with and what they need in terms of financial assistance or care/comfort, they’ll know that the fund is available and they’ll be able to help them.”
“[Patients will get] gift cards for hotels, gas cards, because a lot of our patients come from far away. We cover a 17-county area, so if you’re coming in every day, that can really add up,” said Toni Gary, director of community relations for Upstate. “So gas cards, food cards, Morris’s cards so that they can get food from our cafeteria here, just about anything that the staff has deemed as something that can help them.”
Weeks had approached the hospital about making some kind of donation when she found out that the cancer center was being constructed, but she wasn’t sure how to put the money to use. It was Shenfield who suggested creating an Angel Fund.
“I jumped at this when Terry suggested this,” Weeks said. “We had originally thought about doing a naming opportunity, but when we found out about this, this would be something that she would really advocate for.”
Gary said that Hope for Heather has committed to giving $25,000 to the fund, $5,000 over the next five years.
The cancer center, a five-story expansion to Upstate University Hospital, is expected to open in mid to late 2013. The outpatient center will serve both pediatric and adult cancer patients as well as blood disorder patients from a 17- to 21-county area from as far south as the Pennsylvania border, as far north as the Canadian border, as far east as Utica and as far west as Rochester.
Though the cancer center is not yet online, the fund has already started helping ovarian cancer patients.
“We just had an ovarian cancer patient that we were able to give a gift card to [for gas] who lives out of town, and the expenses just mount up,” Weeks said. “Especially if someone’s not working and they have to pay $8 a day for the parking garage, their relatives have to eat, their dog has to be in the kennel — all of these expenses that we don’t really think about that are incurred besides their prescriptions, their treatment, their surgery.”
Weeks said she believed her daughter would think the Angel Fund was a step in the right direction.
“Heather would think this was a great thing to do, because she was a strong believer in really making a difference where it mattered, and sometimes tangible gifts are what matter, and people will remember that.”
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.