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Toughest game of Heather’s life
School celebrates 9-year-old’s first cancer-free month

By Bayne Hughes
hughes@decaturdaily.com· 340-2432

Nine-year-old Heather Owens lives for basketball and softball, but she couldn’t run in physical education class without pain, and she couldn’t catch her breath.

So her mom, Paula Owens, checked Heather out of school and took her to the doctor. They thought her asthma was getting worse, but a CT scan revealed a tumor the size of a large orange on her seventh rib. The tumor was producing so much fluid it was difficult for Heather to breathe.

Doctors diagnosed her Jan. 11 with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare bone cancer that affects only about 200 people a year.

That was the beginning of the toughest game of Heather’s life. She won that ultimate game, however, and her Priceville Elementary classmates celebrated with her Friday as if she’d won a championship.

“You’ve had a tough year, but she didn’t quit. You kept fighting,” said her fourth-grade teacher, Ann Taylor, as she presented Heather a trophy marking one cancer-free month.

Heather endured 42 weeks of chemotherapy, proton beam radiation and 28 radiation treatments.

She also lost four ribs with the tumor in an April 13 surgery. The surgeon inserted a metal plate to replace the ribs.

Heather’s sweet smile covers the tough girl underneath. While chemo would put most people on their backs, she was back on the basketball court a week after her first treatment. Even though her last chemo treatment was Nov. 11, she is back playing the game she loves, though her endurance isn’t there.

“She was so strong and courageous,” Paula Owens said. “Most girls would be running around with a cap or a scarf on because they lost their hair, but she doesn’t care.”

As mother worried, Heather looked at her and said, “Jesus told me I would be OK.” She wore bracelet with a Bible verse that she looked at for inspiration when she was feeling particularly bad.

Principal Ann Knowlton said Heather stayed with her class academically and made good grades at a time when she was just trying to stay alive.

“She was determined to get well,” Knowlton said.

The community then stepped in to help the Owens. Co-workers donated leave time to Paula Owens, a Falkville Elementary kindergarten teacher. This allowed her to stay with her daughter during the many hospital visits and travel to Boston with Heather for the proton beam treatment. It was a trip of firsts, which included riding in a plane, a cab and a subway.

“I didn’t care for the flight to Boston because I was sick the whole time, but the flight back was much better,” Heather said.

Her father, John, is an electrician at Goodyear. His job was to stay home and keep Heather’s two sisters.

Priceville Elementary raised about $4,000 with a “Hearts for a Heart” campaign. The students bought these Valentines Day cards as way to help their friend.

“People around here have been just so wonderful,” Paula Owens said.

Heather is now dealing with the after-effects, some good and some bad.

She’s re-growing her hair and trying to get her strength back. She’ll have to make annual trips to Boston for a while. The goal is staying cancer free for five years.

She also has a difficult decision to make. The Make-A-Wish Foundation is granting her one wish.

A University Alabama football fan, she’d like meet quarterback John Parker Wilson, but she also would like to go to a Florida theme park.

Her mother said she’ll probably get to meet The University Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols.

But Dad has more serious worries. He said Heather is beginning to show an interest in boys.

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