Danville Express

Living - June 29, 2007

Team Heim tackling Avon Breast Cancer Walk

It's a family affair to beat cancer after mom is diagnosed

by Natalie O'Neill

Cancer survivor Connie Heim has gotten high seven times. But not from anything you can smoke, shoot or snort.

Having completed seven breast cancer marathons, she says the feeling of passing through the finish line can only be described as total euphoria.

"If I could have bottled what I felt, I'd be rich. It was that kind of high," she said of her last walk for breast cancer.

The Danville resident was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer in September 2001 and has raised $103,000 in the last five years doing walks all over the country.

Chicago, Boston, San Diego, San Francisco. The inconvenience of the location hasn't stopped her from getting there, getting fit and getting donations.

Now, after five-and-a-half years of being cancer free, she will walk in this year's Avon Breast Cancer Walk on July 7-8 in San Francisco. And she will do so with a deep motivation and sense of thankfulness.

"Every step I take, I take in gratitude. I was one of the lucky ones," she said.

A case of breast cancer, the most common cause of cancer among women worldwide, is diagnosed every three minutes. Breast cancer alone causes 502,000 deaths each year worldwide in both men and women, according to the most recent numbers.

The efforts of walkers, crew members and donors for Avon Breast Cancer allow medically underserved patients to be treated, giving them access to the care they require. They also fund research teams on their path to finding a cure.

This year, Connie, her husband Don and their 27-year-old daughter Katie will do the nearly 40-mile walk together, as they have in the past. In 2000 they completed their first walk as a family and dubbed themselves Team Heim. Walkers are encouraging, with cheering crowds, honking horns and even one man who blasts Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" every year, Connie said.

"We're going to be walking in one of the most beautiful cities in the world," Don said. The walk goes over the Golden Gate Bridge and into Sausalito and Mill Valley.

The event will give them an opportunity to both make a difference in the lives of cancer patients and bond with each other and other families of cancer patients while they push their bodies to their limits.

Walking, staying healthy and striving for a positive attitude played a big part in beating her cancer, Connie said.

A combination of catching the cancer early, radiation and keeping high spirits helped her beat the malignant growth without chemotherapy. She went through two surgeries in a week, all the while knowing there was a good chance the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.

When she and her husband Don found out the cancer wasn't in the lymph nodes, it was an incredible weight off both of their shoulders.

"Don aged 20 years that week," she said.

"It was devastating," Don recalled. "The first thing I said was 'we' will get through this, not 'you' will."

After she left the hospital, the nurses told her something that helped her immensely with her battle: Attitude is everything.

"They told me, 'Keep your attitude - it will save you,'" she remembered.

And her walks helped her to do this.

"I refocused on something outside of me instead of thinking about myself," she said.

Shortly after her surgery, she began walking three to four miles with her dog three times a week to train for the cancer walks.

To raise money for each walk, Connie sends letters out to every one she knows - friends, acquaintances, volunteers she met through her work at Katie's schools. Even with the vast walk, sore muscles, dehydration and shin splints, Connie says fundraising is the most difficult part of the event.

"The hardest part is asking people for money," she said.

Connie's best fundraising story, she said, happened while she was training. To get ready for the San Francisco slopes, she would walk the hill by Peters Ranch in Danville. This had her huffing and puffing and her heart pounding every time, but at the top she always looked forward to seeing a gorgeous house.

"It was my reward," she explained, because it was so aesthetically pleasing.

One afternoon, she decided to write the owners of the house a note, to let them know that she always looked forward to reaching the house while training. She thanked the homeowners for making her walk more beautiful and told them what she was preparing for.

Days later, she got a generous check in the mail from the owner of the house - money that she put right into donations for the walk. The money that generous Danville folks like this have contributed has had direct positive result on breast cancer patients, Connie said.

"People are being diagnosed earlier. Yes, we are looking for a cure, but we also want to get people in for early detection," she said, adding that she feels like she's making a difference.

This year, for the eighth time, Connie will get high. And this time, again, she'll have her family right there with her.


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