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News / Health / Breast Cancer

I’ll fight as long as I can, says Felida cancer patient Heather James

nLIGHT employee has been in four-year battle against cancer

By Chrissy Booker, Columbian staff writer
Published: February 9, 2024, 6:06am

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Felida resident Heather James’ journey with breast cancer has been an uphill battle.

Her life changed four years ago when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of ductal carcinoma. Today, the 53-year-old nLIGHT employee is still fighting the disease, which doctors say is terminal. They found new malignant tumors sprinkled throughout her body, including her spine, pelvis and right lung. It is her third bout with cancer in just four years.

“I’m in this different diagnosis, so it’s totally different now — not knowing if the cancer is ever going to leave your body,” James said. “After three times you start to question it, you know? You start to question everything.”

Four-year journey

Her battle started in April 2020 when she was showering and felt a lump on her breast. It took her only 30 minutes to get to the hospital and begin tests. A week later, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer known as HER2 positive.

Soon after, she started chemotherapy and underwent surgery to remove the lump. In December 2021, James celebrated what was supposed to be her last surgery and chemotherapy infusion. But less than a year later, in April 2022, a new bump appeared in the same spot.

At first, her doctors said it was likely a fat necrosis, but James said she had a gut feeling that something else was wrong. Despite taking the drug tamoxifen, which reduces the risk of recurrence, the cancer came back.

“I really listened to my body, and I was an advocate for myself,” James said. “Even if you think it’s a one-and-done, it really may not be. You need to ask questions and get all those effective opinions.”

During the second recurrence, she received 30 rounds of radiation and underwent a mastectomy to make sure the cancer stayed away. Then, in August 2023, James became worried when she discovered three new tumors had formed and the disease had continued to spread. She is now receiving treatment at Compass Oncology in Vancouver. She was told the cancer is terminal, but she wants to seek other opinions.

James hopes to get into a clinical vaccine trial at the Cancer Vaccine Institute in Seattle. In 2013, Dr. Nora Disis, a researcher at the institute, conducted a vaccine trial that involved 66 women with advanced stage HER2-positive breast cancer, like James. About half of people with this type of cancer would be expected to die within five years of treatment. But researchers found that of those who received the vaccine, 80 percent were still alive at the 10-year mark.

Unwavering support

Receiving the diagnosis at the beginning of the pandemic made treatment even harder, according to James. She went to appointments by herself and often felt lonely. But the unwavering support from her friends and family over the past four years has been amazing, she said.

In August 2020, four months after the first diagnosis, two of James’ closest friends, Maggie Andrews and Christina Stewart, organized a surprise parade to show support. Friends, family and colleagues from nLIGHT, where she works as the corporate office manager, drove past James’ home in Felida dressed in pink, with matching balloons and signs that read “No one fights alone” and “You got this, Heather.”

“She’s such a good person and loved by so many. I mean, I don’t know that you could come up with a person that had a bad word to say about her,” Andrews said.

James met Stewart when she was 21; they have been best friends ever since. Throughout the journey, Stewart has shown up to doctor’s appointments, kept track of surgery dates and helped James prepare questions to ask at every appointment.

Stewart and Andrews have organized a GoFundMe web page to go toward James’ living expenses and medical bills. The company nLIGHT allows James to work from home, but as the sole income earner for her family, she has been under a lot of financial stress since the cancer spread. The GoFundMe has raised $5,695 of its $25,000 goal so far.

Hoping to offset more living costs and raise awareness about breast cancer as a whole, James’ friends are also hosting a fundraiser on March 22 at Brickhouse Bar and Grill.

James said her constant message is to be an advocate for yourself and listen to your body.

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“The support has meant so much to me — from the GoFundMe to the text messages to, you know, the community,” James said. “I don’t know if people are more afraid to talk about it because it’s terminal. I hope to get more of that support during this time and be around for as long as I can with as much dignity as possible.”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.