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The health heroes who inspired us in 2022

They fought cancer, fell in love after a serious illness and found humor in their diagnosis.
Heidi Richard fought for a diagnosis after mystery symptoms started to disrupt her life. After grueling treatment for cancer and a stem cell transplant, she was excited about running the Boston Marathon. 
Heidi Richard fought for a diagnosis after mystery symptoms started to disrupt her life. After grueling treatment for cancer and a stem cell transplant, she was excited about running the Boston Marathon. Courtesy Heidi Richard
/ Source: TODAY

An unexpected diagnosis can change anyone's life. For some, it's a relief. For others, it's the start of a life-and-death struggle. People can find strength they never could have imagined in themselves and others.

Here are some of the health heroes who inspired us in 2022:

When her pain was dismissed as ‘anxiety,’ she fought for a diagnosis

Heidi Richard, 47, spent a year trying to convince doctors there was something wrong with her body, but her worsening stomach symptoms were dismissed as anxiety, acid reflux and mono. She was ultimately diagnosed with lymphoma — cancer of the lymphatic system.

When we caught up with her in April, the Worcester, Massachusetts, teacher was getting ready to run the Boston Marathon after undergoing grueling treatment.

“I often wonder if I would have been taken more seriously if I were male. Doctors kept saying, ‘Oh, it’s anxiety or you can’t handle the stress of your job or you’re overreacting. It’s not a big problem.’ I don’t feel like they would have said those things to me if I had been a man,” she told

“And I believed them, even though I knew something wasn’t right. I was always asking to be seen or asking somebody to listen to me. It was frustrating.”

If you’re not feeling your best, you need to advocate for yourself, Richard urged others. Know what your baseline is and when something is wrong, ask for a second opinion or a test.

“Don’t be afraid of sounding like a hypochondriac — that’s what I was afraid of and luckily I spoke up when I did, because finally I had enough,” she said.

After surviving 2 types of cancer, woman gets married for the first time in her 70s

Audrey Parker survived colon cancer and breast cancer to finally marry the man who stood by her side during the 10-year ordeal.

Parker had dreamed of getting married and having a family, but it had not come true by the time she entered her 40s. When she attended her high school reunion at 49, she connected with Allen Green, who she didn’t know when they attended the same high school.

Just when Parker had found someone special, she feared she would lose Green after being diagnosed with colon cancer, then breast cancer, but it turned out she had no reason to worry. Green waited on bended knee on the other side of her cancer treatments and proposed in front of her family. She became a newlywed at 73.

Parker hopes her story can show others it’s never too late to find love, even if there are seemingly insurmountable obstacles along the way.

“Keep your hands open, keep your heart opened,” she said. “And somehow, some way, whatever it is that you desired, it will come."

Dad gets tattoo of daughter’s heart surgery scar so she doesn’t feel alone

Everly Backe was born in suburban Chicago in August 2017 with a complex congenital heart defect that required surgeons to operate three times before she was 1 year old.

The operations left a visible mark on the girl’s chest that she calls her “zipper line,” so her father, Matt Backe, got a tattoo on his chest that looks like her scar. If they go to the pool or a beach, he wants her to always have someone else close by with a similar mark.

“My thought was as she grows older, I imagine she’s only going to become even more self-aware, so it was just try to help her not feel like she was the only person who had it... just something so she didn’t feel alone,” he said.

Diagnosed with autism at 30, former NFL star finally finds answers

Even as he reached the height of professional sports, former NFL player Joe Barksdale always felt something wasn’t quite right.

Why was it so hard to interact with people? Why was it easier to be alone? Why was it so difficult to decipher emotions — his own and those of others?

Many of those questions were answered when he was diagnosed with autism at age 30. The average age at diagnosis around the world is 5, studies have found, but some people aren’t diagnosed until they’re adults.

“It made me more comfortable with who I am,” Barksdale told “I would encourage others to seek out a diagnosis. The worst case scenario is it’s a waste of time. The best case scenario is that you learn something new about yourself. Now you know.”

Finding humor in her fatal diagnosis: ‘It’s OK to laugh’

Diagnosed with ALS, Cai Emmons explores American culture’s discomfort with death — and the comedy she finds in having a rare, fatal disease.

“I can’t help myself. I find my weakening body not only a subject of fascination, but I find it funny. I am not happy about the prospect of losing the use of my hands, but when I have to ask my husband for help with buttons and zippers, and he tends to me like a child, we both laugh,” she wrote in an essay for

“I often feel playful and antic these days, gesturing with my own invented sign language or squealing at high volume, because that is the only sound I can make. Doing these things makes me feel alive, and it reminds others that I’m present and, though I can’t speak, I still have a zest for life.”

After being diagnosed with 2 types of cancer at once, woman starts global nonprofit

Carolyn Taylor came back from a European vacation to face startling news: She had ovarian and endometrial cancer. Still, she felt grateful that her cancer was caught at an early stage.

The dual diagnoses then prompted her to help women around the world facing the disease.

“I wanted to do a photo documentary project on the global face of cancer to show regardless of where you live, the color of your skin, what God you believe in, it doesn’t really matter to cancer,” she said.

Taylor founded Global Focus on Cancer, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness, provides support and creates a network of communication.

She has traveled to 14 countries to interview cancer patients, survivors, caregivers and medical professionals to try to give a face to what cancer looks like in much of the world.

Woman whose husband died of Alzheimer’s at 56 helps other caregivers

Lisa Marshall never expected to become her husband’s caregiver in midlife. But when he was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease at 53, she entered a world millions of Americans struggle to navigate every day — from the exhaustion and emotional toll of caregiving, to the huge impact it can take on a family’s finances.

Peter Marshall died the day after Christmas in 2021, three years after his diagnosis — a journey his wife chronicled on her Facebook page. It’s also the subject of her new book, titled “Oh, Hello Alzheimer’s: A Caregiver’s Journey of Love.”

“I have a huge passion to help other caregivers and I feel that Peter is with me and helping me,” she told