In The Spotlight

The First 16 Months: One Professor’s Experience Living With Breast Cancer

June 24, 2015 was the day she started surviving.

Clark geography professor, one-time volunteer firefighter, former Department of Defense contractor and best friend of her French bulldog Senna, 43-year-old Heather McAfee said that day, nearly a year and a half ago, was when she was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer.

Every October, as part of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, organizations across the country host events to remember those who’ve died from the disease, and to raise awareness and funds for research and treatment. At Clark College, ASCC held a breast cancer awareness event last week to educate students on awareness and prevention.

McAfee, who received the Exceptional Faculty Award last June, is facing the insecurity of her second year surviving breast cancer.  She said hope and information are key to surviving.

McAfee said she learned that lesson — that hope is crucial to survival — while at the funeral of a dear friend.  The friend, a fellow geography professor, died on July 4, 2015, in a boating accident less than two weeks following her diagnosis.  

During the funeral, a breast cancer survivor approached McAfee to say, “The day you found out is the day you started surviving.”

On her right arm, McAfee sports a tattoo reading: “Hope = Belief + Expectation + Desire.”  She said her father, a mathematician, sat down and wrote the formula after reading “The Anatomy of Hope” by oncologist Jerome Groopman.  

McAfee said that loss can sometimes help people find the opportunity to be hopeful. “When you recognize you’ve had friends die in the war in Iraq or you’ve had a friend die suddenly in a boating accident, it makes surviving breast cancer pretty easy. You make a decision to live,” McAfee said.

Geography professor Heather McAfee holds her emotional support dog Senna.
Geography professor Heather McAfee holds her emotional support dog Senna. McAfee, 43, is now in recovery after being diagnosed with cancer last year. (Preston Hendrickson / The Independent)

During some of the more difficult times in her disease, McAfee has found great comfort and healing in Senna, her emotional support dog.  “He is registered as an emotional support dog because I had PTSD when I came back from Iraq.”

“I just think their souls find you,” said McAfee regarding her dog’s friendship.

Senna has his own Instagram account where McAfee posts regularly. It has 1500 posts, with 1900 people in tune with Senna’s daily life.  “I was told to separate him from my personal account,” McAfee said. “I had about 300 followers on my own, and I gave him his own. He has 1900.”

Though a survivor, McAfee, does not define herself by cancer.

Earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado Springs in political science, global politics and women gender studies, McAfee first worked as a volunteer firefighter in Tye, Texas. She also worked for the Department of Defense as a civilian human terrain analyst for four years, spending one of those years as a cultural analyst in Baghdad.

McAfee wonders if her work as a firefighter contributed to her disease.  “I know that being a firefighter probably exposed me to the chemicals and environmental toxins that caused my body to shift,” she said.

McAfee, who earned tenure last Spring, said it is important to be educated when dealing with breast cancer.

When people are diagnosed, she said it’s easy to think that it’s all in the doctor’s hands. But being in the driver’s seat in your own healing can make all the difference. “I needed to become an expert overnight,” McAfee said. “If you don’t adapt, you learn very quickly that people are making your decisions for you.”

In the age of information, access to all kinds of research is at our fingertips, McAfee said.  Resources like the American Cancer Society can provide insight on types of cancer as well as risk factors and survival rates.

The most important piece of information, McAfee said, is knowing the signs.

Breast cancer does not know bias- no cancer does. Cancer is not exclusive to any age, gender or race. According to the ACS, 2,600 cases of breast cancer in men will be diagnosed this year.

McAfee implores people to learn all they can about their bodies. “When something is questionable, ask a professional. Don’t be ashamed, and don’t put it off.”

“When I was first diagnosed it was stage one.  After two surgeries, it was changed to stage two.” McAfee’s doctors originally did a biopsy and announced it a stage zero which is non-invasive, or stage one where the cancer has not spread past the breast. “When they first looked at the biopsy they weren’t nervous, they said ‘oh it looks like stage zero-one’,” she said.

In the first surgery, which took a couple hours longer than originally expected, the doctors realized that it was more aggressive and invasive. “It was at that point deemed stage two,” McAfee said.

McAfee said all of us encounter risk factors every day that can generate breast cancer. “My breast cancer is not hereditary; it’s not genetic. I’m the only one in my family for generations and generations who has had breast cancer.”

“Breast cancer awareness month is so you’re aware you can be a survivor, “ McAfee said.


Cancer is expensive:  It is taxing on the body and on the survivor’s mental health. Survivors of breast cancer who are 65 years and older spend an average of $23,078 throughout the course of treatment according to the National Cancer Institute.

McAfee said she worries about lower-income breast cancer survivors. “The diagnosis is one thing.  By the very next paycheck to have to come in and do mammograms and biopsies. That’s bankruptcy right there. People can lose their whole life.”

Erin Staples, a women’s health professor at Clark, suggests that there are low-cost options in Vancouver for exams like Planned Parenthood and Sea Mar. “This month they’re doing a lot to get information out to women,” Staples said. “They do breast exams for women and men.”

Staples also said that Sea Mar does a “sliding scale” fee structure, where they bill services based on annual income and family size.

Lindsey Pham, an ASCC officer, said she hoped that last week’s breast-cancer awareness week opened up the eyes of students and staff a little more about breast cancer.  She noted the event featured information about early detection and clinics where people can go for regular check-ups.  “These clinics will also show people how to do the self examination,” Pham said.

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