Our Story of Hope
Heather Wimmer, GBM patient and eight-month survivor from Los Altos Hills, CA
I was born in 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii, the youngest of five daughters. My father is a Lutheran pastor, as are his three brothers, my grandfather, and great-grandfather. For us, hope and faith seem almost genetic. Mom and Dad are in their eighties, but still madly in love; and after beating breast cancer, it is my mother who inspires me with hope that I too will know my grandchildren.
My life was turned upside down when, after having a grand mal seizure at home on a Sunday night this past March, I learned that I had glioblastoma multiforme (GBM). My children, Rachel and Kelly, tired from a weekend of soccer games, had just fallen asleep. Fortunately, I was in bed when the seizure started, preventing any real physical harm and my husband, Gary, was by my side. The girls did not wake up even as the paramedics came through the house to ultimately strap me down and rush me to the hospital. I will be eternally grateful that I didn’t have my seizure earlier in the day when I was driving on the freeway with my children and their friends.
The emergency crew was expeditious and competent, and the physicians quickly assessed my situation and guided me to the best clinicians. I was steered to Dr. Mitch Berger at UCSF, who, later that month, performed resection surgery. Had any of these surrounding circumstances been different, I fear that I might not be here today.
A second opinion from another institution indicated that my tumor was inoperable and to prepare for only about 12 months to live. For me, doing nothing just seemed impossible. With the advice of Dr. Berger, I chose to have extensive surgery, regardless of whether it ultimately saved my life or not. He gave me the hope to fight, regardless of the statistics. After six weeks of radiation, I found him outside of his office and gave him a hug and thanked him again for his successful hands. He said to me, “Heather, your glass has always been half-full. You can beat this cancer.”
Having brain cancer turned my world upside down. I had started a journey down a road that was completely unknown to me and my family. This new path is filled with treatments, MRIs, follow-up visits and seems marked by uncertainty. There is an overwhelming amount of information to learn and, as the brain controls thoughts, emotions, communications and movements, coping has been physically, emotionally and spiritually challenging.
Particularly challenging for me are the questions of my future — whether I will see my daughters graduate, will I be with them when they get married and if I will get the chance to hold the first grandchild. I am uplifted when I read my thirteen year-old daughter’s paper on brain cancer and can see how her courage allowed her to study and present to her student body a complex and personally impacting topic.
I share with my daughter the need to have an in-depth understanding of the science behind brain cancer and find hopefulness for the future through research. I was able to attend and present “my story” at the Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure Scientific Retreat this past October. I shared my hope for researchers to remain nimble, entrepreneurial and flexible in their pursuits and the discussion around advancing treatment options for patients and accelerating the discovery of a cure motivates me to keep fighting.
Similarly, time with my family inspires me and occasions with them serve as markers for reflection and encouragement. Within one month of my resection surgery, I celebrated my 45 birthday, our 20th wedding anniversary and Mother’s Day — all while enduring radiation and chemotherapy. The news of my diagnosis was less than a month old so each of these events was marked by a bittersweet reality.
One event that stands out for me was our anniversary. It brought into sharp focus the amazement of a strong, loving partnership. I’m grateful that I’ve been shown the beauty of my marriage and the blessing of a husband that has managed to hold our lives together these last eight months.
I was the first girl Gary met and he was the first boy I met as we moved into our freshman dorm at Stanford University 27 years ago. Gary and I have wonderful role models for parents and I think that being parents is one of the things we do best. Our daughters, though fiercely competitive, have warm hearts and are compassionate to the people that hurt around them.
They have been wonderfully supportive of me and remind me daily of the preciousness of the moment and all the moments that life generously gives you. Of all the things that I have accomplished in my life, I am most proud of my two daughters.
I was raised with the value that “in everything, give thanks.” I’ve always tried to look for the good things in life and in people, rather than the bad. Incredibly, the past eight months, while difficult and life-altering, have also shown me more beauty, warmth, and love than I could ever mention here. Our days are not easy, but I am grateful for the tremendous love, support and prayers of family and friends. They continue to sustain me and give me hope.