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Cancer shatters normalcy of teen life

Heather Martinez was a typical 15-year-old. Eight months later, she's in an uphill fight for her life.

[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Since 15-year-old Heather Martinez learned last spring that she has ovarian cancer, visits by friends have dwindled, but she has received loads of stuffed animals. A close friend and her boyfriend have come to see her regularly, though, and are keeping up hope that she'll win her cancer battle.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 24, 2002


Heather Martinez once had long, black hair that flowed down her back. Now she has a collection of bandanas that cover where the hair used to be.

Cancer -- more specifically, an ovarian cancer that is rare among teenagers -- has changed a lot of things for this 15-year-old, things more important than hair.

Fighting with her 12-year-old sister, Sammi, used to be something of a pastime. Since Heather got cancer, neither sister has a heart for fighting.

"It made us grow closer and to realize it's not worth fighting about," Heather said. "It made us realize what each other had."

She used to see more friends. But, in recent weeks, many of them have become scarce. One of her teachers says it is because the kids don't know what to say. But sometimes, Heather feels a sense of "betrayal."

Except for her boyfriend, Nick, a hopeless romantic, and her girlfriend Jennifer, who is truer than she ever knew, Heather feels like she's been abandoned.

And, perhaps most telling about Heather's redefined world is how she relates to God.

She used to spend little time thinking about God. She prayed even less. Now, she is on her hands and knees every day. God is closer. And he's having to answer some tough questions.

"I've wondered why God has picked me to deal with this," Heather said. "Or the devil."

Eight months ago, life seemed so much easier.

Heather, who lives on Heather Boulevard in The Heather, was wrapping up her freshman year at Central High. She had a new boyfriend who lived in her neighborhood (which is important when you're too young to drive). And she spent her spare time doing what teens do -- inline skating, shopping and hanging with her buds.

But one morning in April, in her science class, she felt a chill. By the time she got to the school nurse's office, she had a backache and a fever. Her grandparents picked her up and took her to a doctor, who sent her to Oak Hill Hospital. By midnight, Heather was in surgery. Doctors found a tumor the size of a baseball on her right ovary.

That quickly, Heather went from normal teenager to cancer patient.

* * *

Since then, Heather has had surgery four times. She has taken a whole pharmacy of pills, sometimes as many as nine a day. All in an effort to halt the cancer's spread. Constantly, she feels sick. Her appetite is gone. Before chemotherapy could take her hair, she cut it off and gave it to Locks of Love, which makes wigs for cancer patients.

Gone, too, is her teenage world. Now, she's surrounded by adults -- her mom, her doctors, her nurses. "I just don't understand it all," she said. "I feel like I'm forced to be an adult at the age of 15."

In the midst of her trials, Heather has received a boost from some unusual places.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation arranged for her to attend a concert by Nelly and the St. Lunatics, her favorite rap group. But she was too sick to go and had to ask for a rain check.

She went to a Tampa Bay Buccaneers preseason game and met running back Mike Alstott at a Bucs practice. She received a crown, a makeover and a tea party from the Queen for a Day program, which features beauty queens reaching out to girls with cancer.

The Naval Junior ROTC at Central, which Heather was part of before she left school, held a car wash that raised $1,700 for a trust fund that helps the family meet expenses related to Heather's illness. An array of local business and organizations also have chipped in.

And, for a while there in August, it looked like Heather was gaining on the cancer.

But by September, cancer markers in her blood showed it was still there -- and gaining.

She had more intensive chemotherapy and blood transfusions -- all to no avail. Starting next week, Heather begins what she herself calls a "last option" -- a stem cell transplant.

Yet, after going through so much, the challenges Heather faces right now may be as much mental as physical. "Sometimes I don't want to eat or to take the pills I've got to take," she said. In her heart, there's a battle between defiance and doubt.

In one breath, she is convinced that the stem cell transplant will work. "I am bound and determined that I am going to survive this cancer at 15 years old," says Heather, who turns 16 in February.

In the next breath, she pauses on that question . . . what if?

"If it doesn't work, I don't know what I'm going to do," she said.

* * *

If Heather is wavering, the people closest to her are not.

Sammi, the sister she no longer fights with, does what she can to encourage her. "She's scared, but I know she'll pull through it," Sammi said.

Jennifer Calvosa, a friend Heather was really just getting to know when she got sick, has visited Heather nearly every day these past months. Jennifer watched a grandfather die from cancer and knows the emotional aspects of the fight against cancer. Jennifer says that Heather, unlike her grandfather, is going to prevail.

"I think she will. She really wants to. If she really wants it, hopefully she will," Jennifer said.

Nicholas Hart, the boyfriend who literally ran into the hospital searching for Heather that first day after she left school, has proved to be an indomitable force.

He writes poems for Heather. He is working on a song about her with his makeshift band. He has told Heather's mom that he's going to marry her. And he considers himself her guardian angel. Losing Heather simply is not in the plan.

"I pray every night for her," said Nicholas, 16. "I ask God to watch over her and keep her alive, because I want to grow old with her."

But the most relentless source of positivity in Heather's universe is probably her mother, Dora Martinez. She says doctors are telling her that the stem cell transplant should work. And she believes in that with all her heart.

Yet, after going through so much, the challenges Heather faces right now may be as much mental as physical. "Sometimes I don't want to eat or to take the pills I've got to take," she said. In her heart, there's a battle between defiance and doubt.

* * *

Dora allows Heather to question her faith. She lets Heather lament the absence of friends who don't come around anymore. But she won't let Heather doubt her mother's love.

"There's lots of days when she wants to give up," Dora said. "I won't let her. I told her to believe in me. I will get her through this."

To that end, Dora does what many mothers do when their teenage daughter proves stubborn. She gets in her face.

"She still yells at me," Heather said. "She tells me not to get down and to stop worrying and to leave it alone, that everything will be okay. It makes me feel better, but yet it upsets me because I don't think she should yell at me. But it helps me."

* * *

At this point, her fight against cancer could go either way.

For inspiration, Heather soaks up the rhymes of rapper Nelly. She particularly likes the song Ride Wit Me, in which Nelly flaunts his success in front of those who once wouldn't give him the time of day.

For a girl who enjoyed school only to a degree, returning to school -- and the normalcy it represents -- is her ultimate goal. It's just one more way in which her world has been turned upside down.

From the whole ordeal, Heather has learned one thing: Don't take life for granted.

"You never know what's going to happen," she said.

-- Staff writer Jean Hayes contributed to this report. Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com .

How to help

If you would like to help the Martinez family, donations can be made to any Bank of America in care of the Martinez Family Trust, Dora J. Martinez Trustee UA. Account 003670397373. The federal tax ID number is: 02-6145155.

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