Her husband, Marine Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Miller, stationed out of Camp Lejeune, NC, was serving on board the USS Bataan. He was on his ship, serving as a Battalion Landing Team Commanding Officer of 1,300 marines and sailors living across three ships. Lt. Col. Miller has served with the Marine Corps since 1994.
Heather saw her husband off in March for his 10-month tour of duty. She and their son, seven-year-old Ryan, were visited in their home on the Marine base in Camp Lejeune, often by Heather’s parents, Penny and Ron Boykin. Her father Ron is a retired Colonel in the Army.
A month later, while taking a shower, Heather found a lump. Her parents happened to be visiting at the time and she asked her mom to check it as well. Her mom said, “You had better get this checked.” Within a week Heather had a mammogram after which, a core biopsy was performed, and Heather was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 37.
Immediately Heather had asked to be referred to UNC for her care. “I had done research while we were waiting for the biopsy results,” Heather explains. “I knew I had one chance to beat this cancer, and without a doubt I knew that the team approach at UNC would give me that very best chance.” And next she had to tell Gordon.
Gordon says, “As battalion commander, I see Red Cross messages come across my desk all the time. I never expected it would happen to me and that it would be Heather. As a Marine, I know the kind of military power that can be brought to bear, but in this situation, I was powerless to do anything.”
Heather says, “Making the call to Gordon was the hardest thing to do. I could protect my son somewhat from the reality of the cancer, but with Gordon, I knew that the timing of this cancer could not be any worse. He was in command and had worked so hard to reach this milestone in his career. I was insistent that the cancer would not take that from him. I told him that his medical battle team was assembled, the battle plan was drawn and that together we would take down the cancer. And that is just what happened.”
Heather’s parents came to stay to help with Ryan and with Heather’s treatment regimen. “My mom was my chemo buddy,” Heather says. “My dad took care of Ryan as Mom and I made the 23 trips to and from UNC for treatment and clinic visits. We joked that he was a nanny, so we started calling him our ‘Manny.’ I was so blessed to have their love and support. I could not have fought this cancer without them.”
Heather describes the trip home to their Camp Lejeune neighborhood after her first and last chemotherapy session. “For the first chemo session, they lined the streets with signs that that read, ‘We support you Heather.’ For my last chemo, I came home to the street lined again with signs and my entire neighborhood waiting on my deck to help me celebrate the end of chemotherapy.” These families have been amazing, they have helped with meals, hugs, prayers, special gifts, and just a sense of togetherness. Many of these families have a service member who is deployed as well. These ladies continued to give and give to our family. I never once felt alone in my fight whether I was at UNC receiving treatment or at home in Camp Lejeune. I had a great support system, one combined team with the same goal, to help me live.”
When Heather’s surgery date was set, Lt. Col. Miller was determined to be with her. It took 40 hours, two ships, three airplanes and four countries, but he arrived home less than 24 hours before the November 9th surgery.
Gordon and Heather have much praise for their UNC team of Dr. Keith Amos, surgical oncologist; Dr. Eric Halvorson, reconstructive surgeon; and Dr. Billy Irvin, medical oncologist. Heather says, “They have been most encouraging and with me every step of the way.” Gordon says, “Our family has to drive three hours each way to be seen at UNC, but the quality of care is second to none. They saved Heather’s life and gave our family a future together, they gave us HOPE.”
Heather explains, “Having cancer has deepened my faith. It has also deepened my relationships with my family, in our marriage, and with so many people. Despite the cancer diagnosis, so many blessings have come out of it. I only hope that I can give back to the communities that have given me so much.”