New Castle News

October 1, 2012

Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Survivor says ‘I will find a way to get through it’

Kayleen Cubbal
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — It is at night, when she is trying to sleep, that Melissa Heitzenrater-Grimes occasionally gives in to the frustration.

“We argue at night sometimes, God and I,” she said. I say, ‘There’s gotta be a break in here for me at some point.’

“Sometimes,” Melissa added, “I wonder how much I can take. But then I think, ‘you know, I wonder if God chose me to fight this battle for a reason, because he knows I’m tough and I will find a way to get through it.’ ”

The Edinburg resident has waged the battle of her life through the past two years, first against cervical and breast cancer and, more recently, a devastating divorce, which also resulted in a job change and the need to put the dream home she built with her now ex-husband up for sale.

But the word “survivor” epitomizes the essence of the 32-year-old Melissa’s being. And that has not changed since the day she received her initial cancer diagnosis 26 months ago.



FROM THE BEGINNING

The Mohawk High graduate was a a mental health technician/secretary for Jameson Hospital’s Behavioral Health Unit when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer in August 2010, as she and Josh Grimes — then her husband of four years and a nurse with whom she worked side-by-side on the midnight shift at Jameson South — were building their home in Edinburg. Three months later, and two weeks after moving into the home, she found a lump as she rubbed her hand across her chest. Diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, she researched her type of breast cancer and decided that a bilateral mastectomy (removal of both breasts) provided her the best chance for long-term survival.

She was scheduled for her surgery at Passavant Hospital on March 9, 2011, but when an anesthesiologist gave her a needle block, she suffered a grand mal seizure and her heart stopped. She was revived and the mastectomy completed.

About two months later, she began six intensive chemotherapy treatments, after which she lost all of her hair on her body, with the exception of her eyelashes.

Through it all, Josh was by her side, as was Baily, a labrador/springer spaniel mix puppy given to her by co-workers.

“My family, my friends, my co-workers, the whole community was so supportive,” she said. “I never felt like I was alone, I had so many people backing me.”

Determined to continue living her life, she graduated from Penn State-Shenango in May 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies. She served as a breast cancer survivor speaker at Jameson’s Paint the Town Pink, a health-and-wellness expo for women at Westminster College last year. Although she continued to face removal of her ovaries as a result of the cervical cancer, she forged on, receiving treatment at Magee Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh as she prepared for the revolutionary breast cancer drug Herceptin, which was developed by New Castle native Dr. Dennis Slamon.



STARTTING OVER

But as Melissa continued to try to heal her physical being, things began to change in her personal life.

She and Josh started to drift apart and eventually decided to divorce.

“It’s sad about Josh and me,” she said. “People used to say that we were like Ross and Rachel from “Friends,” that we were just meant to be together and I will always be grateful to him for being there for me. But I think we just both had so much stress and other crap to deal with over the course of the past couple of years, we somehow pulled apart.

“You don’t realize it’s happening at first, but all of a sudden you wake up one day and realize that you need to go your separate ways.”

Josh continues to live in the Edinburg home with Baily, although Melissa said when the home is sold, Baily likely will remain with her. Since it was tough to work so closely with Josh, she has moved into a social work position with Jameson.

She was sent reeling further when her mother, Kathy Heitzenrater, was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer in March at age 54.

“That has been tough,” she said. “She went through the whole chemotherapy thing and lost her hair like I did. I tried to be there for her like she was for me.”

Melissa’s straight hair has grown back into a mass of curls, just one more addition to a year of change.

In recent months, she reconnected with a friend, Justin Whitfield, with whom she had been close 10 years ago.

“I am trying to start over with all facets of my life,” she said. “Once you reconcile yourself to the fact that you can’t change things, you just move on. I hold my head up high and when I wake up, I smile every day.

“I think it’s just all part of a life lesson for me. And I think I will be better for it when I come out the other side.”