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One woman’s journey

Heather Hogg was nearing the end of her MBA program eight years ago when she noticed a spot on her face was getting larger. She went to her family doctor, who routinely did a biopsy in such situations, and thought no more about it – until she completed her thesis.

“I finished my thesis on a Friday night. I woke up Saturday morning and said, ‘I haveHeather Hogg cancer.’ It was like my mind was protecting me. Now that my thesis was done, it could turn to dealing with this,” says Heather, vice president of the Royal Bank in Halifax.

Heather was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. She didn’t know much about this type of cancer – at first. “I’m very much an information seeker, and I was a nurse and genetic counsellor for hereditary cancer. My training is all about finding answers,” she says. “I knew if they caught it early the chances of a successful treatment were much greater.”

Heather had surgery in 2002 to remove the cancer. “The procedure is called a rotational skin flap,” she explains. “The cancer looked like an irregular shaped freckle, about a centimeter and a half.”

After the surgery, Heather was called back for further surgery to get all the “edges” so that no cancer remained. For a year, everything was fine. As Heather was preparing to go for a three-month check-up in 2003, she mentioned to her mother that she was noticing changes in skin colour on her face. It turned out to be cancer.

This time Heather had to go to Calgary for Moh’s Microsurgery, a procedure not available in Nova Scotia. The surgery involved part of her face being frozen and the cancerous area being removed. “After removing the cancerous spot, the doctor examined this tissue to see if the edges were clear,” she said. “The doctor continued to remove tissue for eight hours until there were no cancer cells at the edges. When it was over, they had taken an area four centimeters by five centimeters. My face was frozen, but I was awake the entire time.”

Following the surgery, Heather, who is a member of Cancer Care Nova Scotia’s Board of Directors, had a skin graft and several reconstructive surgeries. She also had experimental immunotherapy, which tries to boost a person’s immune system so it will fight against tumour cells.

For the past seven years, Heather has been cancer free. “It is an empowering moment,” she says, “when the cancer leaves your body.”

En route to that moment, however, is a roller coaster ride of emotions. For Heather, her journey with cancer was a visible one. “Because the cancer was on my face, everybody saw it. I wore it every day,” she says.

After her second fight with cancer, Heather went for counselling. “I had to overcome the fact that I was looking at cancer every day when I put on my special make-up.”

Today, Heather is sharing her cancer experience. She is also applauding Nova Scotia’s new legislation restricting tanning bed use to adults over 18. “There are things in life you can do to help prevent cancer and it’s important that you do them.”

“We need to protect our young people,” Heather adds. “They think they know it all. But I didn’t think this would happen to me. I was only in my mid-thirties.”

Heather has two pieces of advice for others. “First, when in doubt, get it checked out. Whatever ‘it’ is. Second, have hope. ‘Cancer,’ she says, ‘is not a death sentence.’”

Heather Hogg knows that every time she looks in a mirror – and smiles.

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