Candy Heideman found out she had breast cancer in 1998 and had a mastectomy.
Three years later, she learned the cancer was back, this time in her bones.
“I figured I had six months left,” said Heideman, a West Chicago resident and nationally ranked dog trainer.
She still has to have chemotherapy every three weeks, but after seven years, Heideman says she’s “still doing everything I want to do.”
Her experience — as one of the nearly 10.8 million Americans living with cancer, according to 2004 National Cancer Institute data — sparked a desire to help others, and has inspired others to help.
Friends in the dog-training community formed a team to participate in one of the area’s upcoming Relays For Life, which are run by the American Cancer Society to honor patients and raise money for cancer research.
The idea struck Liz Mishima, a Glen Ellyn dog trainer, as she was reading the paper on the Metra train and saw a Relay for Life ad. Mishima, who’d lost her brother to lung cancer, wanted to help Heideman.
Mishima thought of how people in the dog-training community are always looking for venues to practice obedience and mused that perhaps her friends could host dog events and donate the money to the American Cancer Society.
With that, the “Sit, Stay, Walk to Find a Cure” team, led by Mishima and co-captain Lori Kantner of Wheaton, was born. So far, 19 dog trainers have joined the team for Friday’s Glen Ellyn-Wheaton-Winfield Relay For Life.
Mishima said it’s a change for the dog trainers.
“It’s unique, because people in the dog community do things for dogs, for shelters,” she said. “But we thought we’d use the dog community to support the human side of the team.”
While members have gathered pledges, the team also has coordinated various fundraisers, selling homemade dog treats and holding obedience events such as one last week in Hanover Park.
Heideman said the dog community has been “thrilled” to help the cancer society while working with the dogs.
“People felt very rewarded for coming to do something they wanted to do, anyway,” Heideman said.
The dogs are participating in other ways, too. Several are slated to perform demos with their trainers at the relay.
But dog trainers make up just one team in a diverse pool of people participating in Glen Ellyn’s Relay For Life.
Leslie Abrahamson of the American Cancer Society said many types of people — “from grandparents down to babies in strollers” — get involved, often forming teams around business, families, and survivor and caregiver networks.
“(The relay) brings the old-time community festival back again, the neighborhood, community feeling,” she said.
The cancer society spends about 89 cents for every dollar it receives on research and direct services that go well beyond research. Additional services include rides to health care appointments, medical bills assistance, a wig program and early detection programs.
Heideman can’t stress enough the importance of awareness and screening for cancer. She said she hopes her own story gives people strength and hope.
“My biggest goal in life is to help people feel strength and want to keep going and not be afraid that they can’t keep going,” Heideman said.
But she still has time for her dogs.
“The dogs are special,” she said. “We teach them a lot but we learn so much from them. When there’s tough times, they keep us going. They’re wonderful.”