NANTY GLO —
There were three things on Heather Rhine’s mind over the past year as she endured an exhausting regimen of cancer treatments:
“My girls,” Rhine said at her Weaver Circle home north of Nanty Glo.
With her radiation therapy wrapping up over the next few weeks, Rhine is back to work and looking forward to seeing more games and other activities involving daughters Hannah, 14; Haley, 11; and Heidi, 9.
The girls have been supportive, her husband, Harvey Rhine, said, even though they wonder how much the younger girls understand the situation their mother faced.
“It was hardest on Hannah,” Heather Rhine said.
“She tried to be tough and act like it didn’t bother her,” Harvey Rhine said. “But you could tell.”
Despite the early onset and aggressive treatments, her doctors say her chances are good, Heather Rhine said.
“They said the prognosis is almost 100 percent, as long as I went through with the treatments,” she recalled. “Dr. (Ibrihim) Sbeitan told me I was the poster child for early detection.
“I have inspired many of my friends to get their mammograms.”
Heather Rhine went in for her first routine screening mammogram on a Wednesday. On Thursday, she was called to report immediately to Dr. Gerard Garguilo’s office on the Memorial Medical Center campus in Johns-town.
A needle biopsy confirmed the cancer and a lumpectomy was scheduled on the following Monday.
Heather Rhine said she was still reeling from the diagnosis and series of events when she first met medical oncologist Sbeitan a few days later. She remembers crying as he was shuffling through her reports and looked up at her.
“He said ‘you are going to be just fine,’ ” she recalled. “Then the tears really flowed.”
Analysis showed her tumor had a rare pathology. Fifteen percent of it was aggressive and driven by the female hormone estrogen, she said.
But 15 percent was enough for her care team to order a full round of therapy, which included 16 chemotherapy sessions and is continuing with 35 radiation treatments with radiation oncologist Dr. David Stefanik at UPMC Cancer Center, John P. Murtha Pavilion in Johnstown.
At first, she was going strong: Getting the girls off to school, heading into Johnstown for treatments and then going to work as special education supervisor at Appalachian Intermediate Unit 8.
“Four weeks into it, Dr. Stefanick said, ‘You have to slow down,’ ” she said. “Co-workers also encouraged me, so I took some time off. I have an amazing support group at work.”
Heather said she’s humbled when friends marvel at the strength she displays.
“I don’t consider myself strong,” she said. “You have to do what you have to do. I rely on my family. I had to be there for my girls.”
She credits support from family and friends for providing the strength.
Her husband said he noticed a turning point in her attitude when she started losing her hair from the therapy. She once had long, blond hair down her back.
“She was shocked to hear it at her age,” Harvey Rhine said. “It seemed like she was depressed for a while. Then her attitude changed, and it was like, ‘I have to beat this.’ ”
“One day I told him I was going to have my head shaved,” Heather said.
“I told her don’t rush, and she just pulled a whole handful out,” Harvey Rhine said. “I didn’t realize that it started so soon.”
“Once I got my wig I was better,” Heather Rhine said. “I was ready to get it done. I wanted to get control.”
She was relieved when genetic testing showed no inherited risk of cancer.
“The good thing about it is, I wont pass it on to my girls,” she said. “Mine was driven by estrogen.”
Randy Griffith covers health care for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/photogriffer57.