On a cold October day, trees swayed as rain poured down outside. Inside his daughter’s Pecatonica home, tears rimmed Arlen Heeren’s eyes like the rain drops filled the puddles.
“You bluff a lot how much you’re really going through,” explained Heeren.
But on this day, there was no poker face for Arlen, even though he tried. His wife Diane is longer by his side as she had been for their more than 40 years of marriage
“We just fell in love and [were] always side by side, never putting one in front of the other,” said Heeren through tears.
Together they raised their two daughters and son. Together they welcomed in grandchildren. Together they stared down a diagnosis of of breast cancer in 2004. Six years later, another diagnosis, but this time it was endometrial cancer. Then in September of 2015, yet another diagnosis of cancer: metastatic breast cancer.
“Once again we hear these words ‘I’m sorry but you have cancer.’ At that time I had never even heard of metastatic cancer.”
It was breast cancer that had spread to Diane’s bones. Then this year, doctors found it in her brain, and despite a successful surgery, it kept spreading. In August, Diane ended up in hospice care at a nursing home. The Pain left her weak as Arlen fought for strength for the both of them.
“We were a bonded couple,” explained Arlen. “If she hurt, I cried.”
Arlen is himself a victim of his wife’s cancer. He was the caregiver always trying to reroute his wife’s worry, even when it was about him.
“She said ‘I worry about you. Are you going to be okay?’ There again, the compassion,” Heeren said as he choked up.
Arlen knows he’s not okay. He admits he’s numb. He held hands with Diane during the life changing diagnoses, and again during her last breath. Arlen was with Diane through endless treatments until her hair fell out. Now, he’s the grandpa cradling his daughter’s newborn baby his wife held on to meet.
“She was there to see little Jack come into this world, and she had one more birthday. and one more anniversary,” said Arlen through tears.
Arlen is a husband now forced to finish the fight after Diane lost the battle. They’re separate in spirit, but Arlen’s need is very much the same as Diane’s: strength. He finds it through family members like his daughter Nikki and new grandbaby, Jack. Arlen is pushing forward with the help of the fond memories he and Diane shared. She loved for animals and gardening. Diane snapped many pictures of her favorite flowers, but the ones that stick out now are the blossoms pushing through the dead leaves at the start of Spring. They bring new meaning to Arlen as he seeks beauty in what feels like a never-ending rainy day.
“We prayed for a miracle, and now I look back and think, my miracle was 13 years ago,” explained Arlen. “I could’ve lost her then.”
Metastatic breast cancer occurs in up to 20%-30% of women initially diagnosed with breast cancer. Dr. Joycelyn Speight, a radiation oncologist with SwedishAmerican, says so many women likely end up with the disease because of how early doctors detect the initial diagnosis of breast cancer.
“Because we’re screening women, so we’re diagnosing them earlier and women are living longer and so as they’re living longer, there’s more time for disease reoccurrence or metasticies to developing,” explained Dr. Speight.
Dr. Speight said MBC is hard to treat because usually, the patient has developed a resistance to cancer-fighting drugs, and because the cells continue to divide and spread throughout the body.