9/11 first responder beats colon cancer, completes half marathon

"I not only celebrated with joy for finishing — I also celebrated my life."
/ Source: TODAY

Heather Yang had recently joined a running group and started to train for a half marathon when she began having persistent abdominal pain and high fevers. After weeks of doctor and hospital visits, she was told it was most likely diverticulitis and an abscess in her colon.

Three months later, however, continued symptoms led her to insist on colon resection surgery. Yang, then 39, was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer.

Heather Yang was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer in October 2018, at age 39.Heather Yang

"In hindsight, I wish I would have advocated for myself more," Yang, who lives in Chicago told TODAY. "I was having some problematic symptoms that my doctor at the time did not take very seriously ... my diagnosis was honestly a blindside."

In October 2018, Yang started cancer treatment, undergoing 12 rounds of chemotherapy and finally ringing the bell to signify the end of her treatment in March 2019.

Yang completed her 12 rounds of chemotherapy and rang the bell signifying the end of her treatment in March 2019.Heather Yang

"Remission is not a word that is generally used for colon cancer," Yang explained. "Right now, the phrase I use is that I am a cancer survivor who is currently under surveillance ... I do tick a lot of boxes for high risk for re-occurrence, but I do not let that get me down ... I'm still alive."

In her teens and 20s, Yang served in the Army, deploying to Bosnia when she was just 20 years old. After the 9/11 attacks, she spent a month working at ground zero, followed by a tour of duty in Iraq in 2003.

Yang says the lessons she learned during her time in the service made her mentally strong and able to face chemotherapy.

Yang served in the U.S. Army, completing deployments in Bosnia and Iraq, and spent one month as a first responder at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks.Heather Yang

"It also gave me the fortitude to know there was no way I wasn't going to finish the half marathon," said Yang. "I had been through so much already in my life that 13.1 miles was nothing in comparison."

About a month after her treatment ended, Yang said she hit the pavement, walking 3 miles at first, then gradually working her way up to longer distances.

"I wasn't going to let cancer take running from me," said Yang. "One of the things I had to come to terms with was that my body was not the same after chemo. That was something I struggled a lot with, but once I accepted the changes, I was able to focus on getting the miles in and celebrated each and every mile I earned."

As she worked her way up to longer distances, Yang began thinking about revisiting her goal of running a half marathon as her "victory lap." The now 40-year-old and her partner, Eric, have both considered Disney a constant in their lives since childhood. The couple took their honeymoon at Walt Disney World, spent birthdays and celebrated the end of Yang's chemotherapy treatments there, too. So, she decided to find a race at the theme park.

In January 2020, Yang completed her first half marathon, during the Walt Disney World Marathon weekend.Heather Yang

"Disney was on my bucket list of race places, so when I decided I was going to accomplish the goal I had set — to run a half marathon — there was no question in my mind that I was going to complete my victory lap at Walt Disney World."

On Jan. 10, Yang participated in the Walt Disney World Marathon, completing all 13.1 miles. Like most participants, Yang ran dressed as her favorite Disney character, the dragon Mushu from "Mulan."

"It wasn't a pretty half — the heat really took a toll on me — but I finished smiling, feeling strong and standing on both my feet," Yang said. "The feeling of crossing that finish line is really a bit indescribable ... I not only celebrated with joy for finishing, I also celebrated my life."

As she continues to build her strength, Yang, who now works in publishing, will have routine oncology checks and CT scans to monitor her health. She also plans to participate in the Buffalo Half Marathon in New York this summer and plans to increase her average watts during spin class.

Yang says her cancer treatment taught her the importance of celebrating every moment, no matter how small.Heather Yang

"A lot of people have asked me what advice I can give to someone who might be going through an illness or traumatic experience, and my advice is always the same," said Yang. "No matter what comes your way, take every day, every moment, every second if you have to, as it comes ... you need to celebrate every small accomplishment and goal that you reach."

"Every time I was able to get treatment, I celebrated being one more treatment closer to the end," she continued. "Every time I went one mile farther, I celebrated that my body was stronger. We are given just one life to live and I try to live whatever remaining days I have as positive, happy and kind as possible."