Professor, cancer survivor to lead regional cancer walk
October 08, 2012
Heather Niemeier remembers the phone call from her doctor six years ago that changed her life.
"It was a complete shock," she said. "I had been experiencing numbness in my hands, and it got worse - all the way up to my wrists."
The doctor ruled out carpal tunnel and multiple sclerosis. An MRI revealed Niemeier had a brain tumor.
"I was 30 years old and a new mom to my oldest child, Braylen. Being diagnosed with cancer, of course, turns your life upside down. All of a sudden, things that mattered 24 hours ago didn't matter," Niemeier said. "I entered the world of medical decision-making."
Surgeons tried to remove the tumor, but couldn't. She opted for radiation treatments, and her scans came back stable.
Niemeier, an assistant professor of psychology at UW-Whitewater who grew up in Waupun, had been living on the East Coast at the time.
"My husband, Jason, and I decided to move back to Wisconsin to be closer to friends and family," she said. "When I started to recover, life changed very quickly in positive ways. I was hired to teach psychology at UW-Whitewater, my hair had grown back, and I learned I was pregnant with my twins, Carter and Hadley.
"I never took ownership of my cancer, I just wanted to move on."
But an email from the Midwest Young Adult Cancer Conference changed her perspective.
"I was amazed to see that it was being held in Madison. I checked out the topics being presented, and realized that nearly all of them applied to me - parenting with cancer, nutrition, dealing with the anxiety of survivorship - I just had to go," she said.
Niemeier's experience was transformative. She met people who not only understood what she had gone through, but also identified with many of the issues she'd been grappling with for years.
"Knowing other people get nervous about symptoms, too, made me feel not so alone," she said. "It really had a positive impact on my coping, and dealing with the emotions of it."
The conference also introduced her to Gilda's Club of Madison, which offers support, wellness programming and sense of community for people touched by cancer in southern Wisconsin.
Niemeier, who started running as part of her recovery and reclamation of her health, decided to volunteer to lead the Gilda's Club 10K Run and 5K Run/Walk on Sunday, Oct. 21.
"I am running in tribute to those who were so instrumental in supporting me through that experience and to raise funds to ensure that those affected by cancer can continue to have access to incredible support and wellness activities from the dedicated team at Gilda's Club in Madison," she said.
Her UW-Whitewater family, including several faculty and staff members and students, will be running and walking alongside her.