Lead photo by Paul Buceta | Stage photo by Benjamin Gay
Heather Mackay was a 22-year-old firefighter in the US military when she was diagnosed with brain cancer. Her disease, she was told, was caused when small brain injuries during her service activated a rare gene mutation that causes cancer cells to produce rapidly. She was given a medical discharge and underwent chemotherapy and radiation, then finally brain surgery, during which, she slipped into a coma.
When she woke up, Heather had no recollection of the last seven years. She didn’t remember anything about herself, including her one-year-old son and four-year-old daughter. She had also lost the ability to walk and talk. She had to start from scratch. Within a month or two, her memories of her family started to return, but she would spend the next year and a half in rehabilitation re-learning everything from speaking to using a fork to feed herself.
After rehab, Heather returned to the military as a K9 handler, but a year and a half later she experienced symptoms of sickness and lethargy. “As a military person, you don’t want to admit weaknesses,” recalls Heather. “Back then it was really hush-hush. You didn’t come out and say when things were wrong.”
But a sleep study revealed that something was very wrong. She was having seizures—as many as five to 20 each night—a side effect from her previous brain surgery. Because of this, she was unable to go on patrol at work, and Heather changed posts again, training other handlers and helping to look after the dogs.
Meanwhile, the cancer cells, overproducing from the gene mutation, continued to spread throughout Heather’s body. “Every year and a half I got a new cancer,” she says. “When I get a cancer it grows very rapidly, so I can go from Stage 1 to Stage 4 in a month.” Heather has survived nine types of cancers to date, including thyroid, kidney, colon, and ovarian. Currently, she is battling breast cancer for a second time, along with permanent terminal brain cancer for which doctors can never operate.
“When I leave this world, I want people to remember that crazy
fitness chick that was on chemo and kicking their butts.”
Refusing to put her life on hold, Heather, now 37, continues doing what she can to serve her country and others. A fitness fanatic all her life (she has over 28 certifications including corrective training for injuries), she has been a personal trainer for several military units since 2012. “I’m able to motivate people that others can’t get through to, and I think that’s my job. I’ve done that in the military a lot,” she says.
Inspired to motivate outside the military base, Heather competed in a fitness competition this past summer in the Bikini category for the first time in five years. Having just healed from a recent mastectomy to remove her second bout of breast cancer and still doing chemo, Heather took to the stage in a stars and stripes bikini—forgoing the option to wear a prosthetic. “I decided to do a competition because a lot of my clients say they could never do it. So I said, ‘If I do a show with one boob, will that prove that anyone can do it?’ I was flat on one side, and got up there and just rocked it.”
Heather placed third in the 35 and Over category and plans to do another show in April 2018, despite her predictions that by then, she’ll be bald from chemo. “I like to advocate that even with cancer you can do fitness. Your fitness level determines your span of life. When you have fitness and goals, it’s really hard to die. Your body doesn’t want to die, it wants to repair itself.”
At the time of this interview, Heather had undergone nine surgeries in 14 months (and needed another to remove a failing kidney). But being in recovery has never stopped her from returning to work to train her soldiers or clients, knowing that her presence makes it tough for them to complain about a headache or skip their workout. “When I leave this world, I want people to remember that crazy fitness chick that was on chemo and kicking their butts. I want to motivate them even after I’m gone,” she says. “That’s the legacy I want to leave behind.”
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