Heather Roberts never asked, “Why me?”

Instead, she would say, “I’d rather it was me who got cancer than someone who didn’t have the support of their friends or family. I have the strength to get through this.”

Heather’s eight-year battle against incurable brain cancer is a story of love, laughter, selflessness, heartbreak and hope.

 

“Heather never let cancer define her,” said her mother, Sue Roberts. “Heather always had hope, and she made people feel that hope.”

Heather’s lifelong friend Mallory Callahan said, “Heather was a warrior, not only with cancer but in uplifting everyone else.”

Mallory and Heather’s friendship deepened through their shared swim team years, the tragic loss of Mallory’s father to brain cancer and their time as colleagues at Methodist Physicians Clinic Regency. Heather joined the Regency clinic’s team in 2009, the year after her cancer diagnosis.

“It was fun to be just a floor away from Heather,” said Mallory, a physician assistant. “Heather joined us as a receptionist. She immediately saw things that needed to be done and just did them, eventually creating her own administrative position.”

“Heather always worked, no matter what,” said Sue, “even on her chemotherapy and radiation days.”

“Methodist was more than a job to Heather,” explained Ariana Bauer, MD, a physician in the internal medicine office where Heather worked. “Heather said the community of love and support she’d experienced from the front desk all the way to the nurses, doctors and lab techs was such a comfort that she wanted to be a part of that healing for other patients.”

Sue and Jon Roberts
Sue and Jon Roberts

“Heather focused on living and on joy,” said Sue. “She was stronger than I would have been. Even when told she had less than two months to live, she did not quit fighting.”

Mother and daughter shared a determination to make a difference. They also shared a high-spirited sense of fun. Family and friends say they always marveled at Heather’s quick wit, side-splitting sarcasm and frankness.

Admitting there is no delicate, honest way to put this, Mallory said, “Heather was usually laughing her butt off. She took the crappy hand she was dealt and uplifted everyone with the most inappropriate and amazing humor.”

Cancer ravaged Heather’s health and mobility but couldn’t restrain her laughter or giving spirit.

“The wheelchair didn’t really exist for Heather,” said Irina Popa, MD, Heather’s oncologist at Oncology Associates at Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center. “She was an optimist ready to conquer cancer, and she left a strong mark behind her.”

Heather, Sue and the entire Roberts family chose to fight more than Heather’s battle. They created Leap-for-a-Cure, an all-volunteer charity affiliated with Methodist Hospital Foundation. Together, they have poured boundless energy into one grassroots fundraising event after another, including Monster Bash, Omaha’s family-focused Halloween extravaganza. Their efforts have advanced awareness and raised more $850,000 for the war on brain cancer.

“Thanks to their passion and hard work, we have been able to offer patients and care providers in Omaha additional new technology, training and other brain cancer resources,” said Patty Bauer, oncology service executive for Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center.


Methodist’s Hydroworx aquatic therapy pool, opening soon, will be similar to the one shown.

From the beginning, Heather wanted Leap-for-a-Cure to build an aquatic therapy pool for those with brain disease or other neurological trauma. An avid swimmer from toddlerhood, Heather always felt truly happy and at home in the water. Eventually, as the cancer progressed, she returned to the water as part of her treatment.

“Heather lost the use of her left side,” said Sue. “She had to learn to walk again.”

To build strength and improve her balance and gait, Heather had aquatic therapy under the direction of Thomas Franco, MD, a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician and the medical director of physical therapy for Methodist Physicians Clinic. Because Methodist did not have a pool, therapy sessions took place at a private pool.

After experiencing firsthand the benefits of aquatic therapy, Heather was even more determined to give this gift to others. She was delighted when a state-of-the-art pool plan was approved but did not live to see her dream realized. Heather passed away in November 2016 at age 37.

The Roberts family continues Leap-for-a-Cure’s work in Heather’s name, and the aquatic therapy pool built in her honor will open at Methodist HealthWest at 156th and Dodge streets in October 2017.

“For years, we have needed a warm water therapy pool,” said Dr. Franco. “Soon we will have it, and we have Heather and her family to thank for their initiative, caring and foresightedness.”

To learn how you can help support Heather’s aquatic therapy pool and other projects to improve awareness, education, and treatment of brain cancer in the Omaha community, visit leapforacure.org.  

Read more about Heather’s life and legacy in the
Fall 2017 issue of The Meaning of Care Magazine: “Heather Roberts, Miracle Woman.”