BOSTON (CBS) -- This Saturday spin bikes will line the infield at Fenway Park for the Pan Mass Challenge Winter Cycle. The Boston Celtics will be well represented, Vice President of Public Relations Heather Walker is taking part in the event to mark a personal victory. She is fighting cancer, promoting positivity, and raising money for a clinical trial that she said is saving her life.
In the history of the Pan Mass Challenge, only one fundraiser and her team have paddled the event. Heather Walker and her friends kayaked from Boston Harbor to Provincetown.
It was a little over 20 years ago and Heather was motivated to raise money for Dana Farber Cancer Institute. "My dad died of cancer—leukemia—when I was 16 and he was 40. It was terrible and I said, 'We have to do something,'" she said.
In subsequent years, she biked the route and raised tens of thousands of dollars. "The PMC is my favorite event in the world," Heather said, "even before I was diagnosed."
Heather is battling Glioblastoma—stage 4 brain cancer. She is on medical leave from her position as the Celtics' Vice President of Public Relations.
Last summer, shortly after the team introduced head coach Ime Udoka to the press, Walker experienced a strange sensation. She was driving and suddenly couldn't see her right arm. She could move it and feel it but the arm had disappeared from her peripheral vision. Concerned, she met with at least one doctor who suggested that she might be experiencing a reaction to stress. But when a blinding headache nearly leveled here while she was in the yard at home, her mother drove her to the hospital and a scan revealed a tumor—a large mass about the size of a grapefruit.
After surgeons removed the tumor, Heather was ready to fight the disease. She said her quest for the best oncologist led her to Dr. David Reardon, the clinical director of the Center of Neuro-Oncology at Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Because of Heather's successful surgery and her otherwise good health, she was able to join his clinical trial. "I wouldn't be here today if I hadn't met Dr. Reardon," she said.
The doctor describes the immunotherapy Heather and 14 other patients are receiving as personalized cancer therapy that helps a patient's immune system mobilize to successfully attack the cancer.
Heather receives a series of injections that, combined with other therapies, essentially work as a vaccine. The immunotherapy she receives in the clinical trial is made from her individual tumor cells.
Dr. Reardon explained, "We can do state-of-the-art analysis of the genetic blueprint of each individual patient's tumor, identify what's unique and different about their tumor, and generate a vaccine specific to that individual patient. It won't help the next person. It won't help the one before them. It's only going to help them because it's specific to their tumor."
He credits his colleagues at Dana Farber and the Broad Institute at MIT—with whom he developed the platform—for creating applications to treat melanoma, kidney cancer, ovarian cancer and even a form of leukemia. "We've had dreams and visions of personalizing cancer therapy for a long time...This is one of the first efforts trying to do that with immunotherapy."
The study Heather joined is the largest, to date, for patients with Glioblastoma. Dr. Reardon was "thrilled" to enroll her in the trial. "She is very committed to her nutrition, exercise, staying healthy, getting good rest—all the things that make a difference in how the immune system is working. And it's just her nature- a wonderful person who's touched so many people in our community. To be able to offer this to her was very exciting," said Dr. Reardon.
No one would blame Heather if she simply focused on her health and family right now. But she is actively raising money for Dr. Reardon's research—encouraging people to prioritize their own health and donate to the Heather Walker Glioblastoma Fund at Dana Farber. She launched #Move4Heather in the spirit of the Ice Bucket Challenge. People challenge one another to engage in physical activity, post their photos online and contribute to the cause. She has raised more than $300,000.
Now, Heather is training for the PMC Winter Cycle. She said she always feels better when she is exercising and couldn't be more excited to join the spin event at Fenway Park. Daily Peloton rides lift her mood and endurance. "I've gone to Fenway for first pitches with Bill Russell and done all that. But this will be the first time it's my personal victory."
Heather shares every victory with her family. Her husband Stephen, daughters Taylor and Samantha and her mother Barbara (a breast cancer survivor) are a source of joy and support. She lights up when she talks about them and tears up when asked how hard it was to tell them about her diagnosis. "Oh my god, it was really hard. They're just little…The kids are the soft spot because they don't deserve to see their mom go through this," she said. "They're amazing. They're my best friends. I couldn't do this without them."
Heather's family joined her last month— the same night the Celtics retired Kevin Garnett's number—when the team honored her as one of the "Heroes Among Us." Standing at center court, the pride in their eyes was unmistakable. Heather's smile lit up the Garden.
She joined the Celtics 16 years ago and has developed deep friendships with many people in the organization. Recognizing her fundraising efforts and Garnett's stellar career created an opportunity for a reunion—a night of hugs and good wishes that sent Heather's spirits soaring. It also strengthened her resolve, "I think it's my duty to go out there and help cure cancer."
After her father died, Heather said she had a feeling that she would get cancer. After the initial shock and sadness of her diagnosis, she was determined to find purpose in the struggle—a purpose that includes raising money to cure the disease. The experience has changed her. She says she no longer sweats the "small stuff." If her kids are having fun, she is having fun. They focus on doing one fun thing everyday.
"Whether it's going for sushi, going for a walk on the beach. We've been doing amazing things like that. Just simple things. But something that lifts your day and makes you feel good."
She expects to feel very good at the PMC Winter Cycle with her half-dozen Move4Heather teammates who will spin with the hope for a cancer-free future. "I try to live every day to the fullest and stay positive. That's the number one thing," she said. "And when I kick this, we are going to pass this journey over to other people who have Glio and make sure they get treatment."
The PMC Winter Cycle takes place Saturday, April 9th at Fenway Park. Area spin instructors will lead fundraising classes on the field. This year's fundraising goal is $500,000. For more information go to pmc.org.
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