On Sept. 23, Oak Harbor resident Heidi Mayne hiked 21 miles through the Cascade Mountains.
Alongside her friend Ellisha Kempton, Mayne traversed the 21 “grueling and gorgeous” miles of the Enchantments near Leavenworth. It took them 13 hours, but Mayne said the experience was cathartic.
The pair had worked out together regularly for years, but this hike was different.
“I wasn’t sure when I’d feel well enough to do something like this again,” Mayne said.
Just two days previously, Mayne had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
The diagnosis was nothing short of life-changing for Mayne and her family. Though Mayne enjoys being involved with the community, enduring the enervating process of chemotherapy while studying nursing at Skagit Valley College has forced her to let go of many things to make time for treatment, rest and recovery.
But the nursing student and mother of five said despite the trial, she has much to be grateful for.
Mayne and her family have lived on Whidbey Island for over 15 years. She is originally from the Los Angeles area and met her husband while teaching at a science camp in South Carolina. In the beginning of their marriage, they moved all over the country because of her husband’s Navy career but have since managed to make Whidbey their home base.
Mayne has been a fixture in the island music community. For many years, she taught piano lessons and accompanied students at various performances, such as Coupeville Elementary School musicals and middle school and high school solo and ensemble competitions.
For the past few years, she has worked as a certified nursing assistant at WhidbeyHealth in the Med/Surg unit, a job she said has been great preparation for her nursing studies. Though her background is in science education, she hasn’t taught since before she got married; moving frequently for her husband’s Navy career made it difficult to keep up with states’ different teaching credentials, and when her children came along, she wanted to stay home with them.
Once her children got older, however, she felt like it was time to resume her career. Rather than return to teaching, she decided to pursue something new.
The decision to become a nurse came around five years ago, when her youngest daughter was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. The nurses who attended to Mayne’s daughter during her week-long stay at Seattle Children’s Hospital had an enormous impact on the family, Mayne said.
“They were great educators and really helped prepare us for a whole new way of living,” she said.
She said the healthcare industry had always fascinated her, and the human body amazed her. Nursing seemed like the perfect fit.
Mayne completed her prerequisites and was nearly halfway through her two-year nursing program at Skagit Valley College when she discovered something unusual. She’d gotten surgery on her shoulder over the summer and was examining her shoulder in the mirror when she noticed that the side of her breast had taken on a concave shape.
At first, she thought the irregularity was a side effect of the surgery, but it persisted as the weeks went on. She finally visited the doctor, where a diagnostic ultrasound and mammogram and ultimately a biopsy all confirmed the same thing: Mayne had breast cancer.
Mayne’s first reaction to the diagnosis was anger, she recalled. After a lifetime of taking good care of herself, and without any other risk factors, she felt that her body had betrayed her.
“I’d done everything right, and I still got cancer,” she said.
Breast cancer is relatively common; the CDC estimates around one in eight women will get breast cancer during her lifetime. Mayne’s is an aggressive type of breast cancer called HER2+. Though Mayne is still in the early stages, chemotherapy is always the treatment for this type of cancer because of its high likelihood of spreading.
“It’s like the great equalizer that can affect anybody,” she said.
Her second reaction to the diagnosis was concern for her family. With that diagnosis, all their lives would change; she fretted about the worry they would feel for her and the stress that would accompany the extra responsibilities they would all have to shoulder.
As Mayne transferred much of her time and energy toward treatment and recovery, she had to make drastic changes in other major parts of her life.
She had to drop all her piano students. These were painful goodbyes, she said, as she had taught and accompanied many of her students for years and would now be deprived of the chance to witness their continued growth in skill.
Her job at WhidbeyHealth, too, had to go. Though her boss was understanding, she said, she still feared that she was letting her team down, especially as the hospital is already short-staffed.
Responsibilities that had fallen to her in the past were transferred to her husband. Mayne would no longer be in charge of chauffeuring the kids to school and other activities. This, too, felt like a loss, she said, as she came to miss the car ride conversations that had remained a consistent point of connection amid the family’s busy schedules.
Despite these and other hardships, Mayne has reached a place of acceptance. She said her faith has been a source of strength and comfort for her.
“You kind of grieve what you have to give, and then you just kind of move forward, because you don’t have a choice,” she said. “And if you’re going to move forward, you might as well do it the best way you can.”
That isn’t to say the last two months have been easy. Mayne documents her cancer journey on her Instagram page, @nursing_geek.in.the.pink. She doesn’t hold back when it comes to describing the difficulties of her treatment, the pains and discomforts, her waning physical ability, her hair loss and the heavy emotional toll of the treatment process. But she also draws comfort and hope from her support network.
Kindness and support for Mayne and her family have poured in from all corners, she said. Her former college roommates sent a care package; her friends have come over to clean her house. Fellow nursing student Lorissa McKay said she started a meal train with other students in the cohort for Mayne and her family, and the sign-up list is always full.
Though the diagnosis came as a shock to everyone, McKay said members of the nursing cohort have stepped up to help Mayne succeed this term while undergoing chemo treatments. The students will often gather and study together. The nursing professors have been helpful, too, Mayne said, changing due dates for her or providing alternate assignments when chemotherapy makes it impossible for her to attend clinicals.
“She is extremely smart and driven. She’s really going to be an amazing nurse,” McKay said. “I cannot wait to see what Heidi does after overcoming all of this.”
Mayne’s friends have also helped her to stay active. Kempton, who accompanied Mayne on the Enchantments hike, continues to walk with her regularly, as do members of Mayne’s military spouse running group.
Her kids’ brass instructor, Sean Brown, even continues to provide them with music lessons, despite Mayne telling him she would no longer be able to teach his kids piano or pay for lessons because of her cancer treatments.
“It’s been kind of overwhelming sometimes to see what people are willing to do to help us out,” she said. “Knowing that you have people in your corner really makes a big difference.”
Mayne’s fellow nursing students have organized a fundraiser to help Mayne cover her medical costs. People may donate at www.gofund.me/cfdde606.