Boley Heiter’s memory lives on through fight against cancer

By Kelly Terpstra,

Jean Boley wears a yellow ribbon throughout the month of July.

It’s pinned close to her heart and helps her remember that her will to fight remains strong.

Cancer has a way of doing that to people, deepening their resolve, of never giving up.

That’s exactly what Boley’s daughter, Amy Boley Heiter, managed to do her in 25 years of life.

Often called the “forgotten cancer,” sarcoma is a cancer that thousands of Americans are working on a daily basis to combat. Their efforts to raise awareness may prove critical in the long-term effort to eradicate this misunderstood disease.

July has been selected to raise awareness about sarcoma, as people supporting that cause wear yellow ribbons.

Charles City’s Jean Boley, whose daughter, Amy Boley Heiter, died from synovial sarcoma in April  2015, was in attendance this past week when Mayor Dean Andrews and the Charles City Council proclaimed the month of July Sarcoma Awareness Month.

“Get yourself checked,” said Jean Boley.

Boley Heiter’s diagnosis of synovial sarcoma, a soft tissue cancer, came in October of 2013 and occurs in about two per 100,000 people a year. The diagnosis usually comes in the third decade of life and affects males more often than females. Sarcoma is a cancer of the connective tissues that can appear anywhere in the body. It is extremely aggressive and requires intense treatment. Surgery is frequently required to remove tumors.

Jean donates $500 every year in he daughter’s name to “Oceans of Hope,” a scholarship that is part of the Sarcoma Alliance. Amy Boley Heiter used the scholarship money during her treatment to receive a second opinion on her diagnosis.

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Even after a diagnosis was grim and the odds weren’t stacked in her favor, Amy persevered.

It’s been more than three years now since Boley’s daughter died of one of the worst kinds of cancer, synovial sarcoma.

“The cancer is so unpredictable. It’s sneaky,” said Jean.

Only two in 100,000 people a year are diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a very rare soft tissue cancer that usually forms near the joints of the arm or leg, but can attack anywhere on the body.

Amy’s life was thrown for a loop with that diagnosis in late October of 2013. She was only 23 years old and recently married.

So began Amy’s fight for her life.

“She had her plate full, but she just kept on going,” said Jean, who has been field coordinator at Foster Grandparents in Charles City for 15 years.

Amy, a star basketball player for Charles City High School who led her team in scoring her senior year in 2008, was no stranger to bumps or bruises.

But this was different — much different.

Amy first experienced pain in her pelvic region during her junior year in high school. She sat out a game because of it and was told it was an ovarian cyst.

That same abdominal pain would come back roughly six years later when she was student teaching. A trip to the emergency room was soon followed by surgery, where a tumor was removed. The Mayo Clinic in Rochester would reveal the word no one wants to hear  — cancer.

Thus would begin a cycle of trips to Rochester to begin chemotherapy. Amy would stay in Rochester from Tuesday until Friday evening to receive the treatments, then head to Mason City 24 hours later to receive a shot to build up her immune system.

The process was repeated three weeks later, with six rounds all told by the time she was finished with the grueling and rigorous treatments.

“She underwent horrible chemo,” said Jean.

Amy’s struggle didn’t slow her down, as she continued to student teach at Washington Elementary in Charles City and work toward her degree at the University of Northern Iowa.

She studied toward a double major of elementary education and early childhood special education. She would get that degree and graduate from UNI on Dec 17, 2013 — a bittersweet day to say the least.

Jean remembers the day vividly, as Amy’s hair fell out for the first time due to the invasive chemo treatments.

“It just dropped,” said Jean. “She said ‘I haven’t touched my hair for two days, Mom, because it’s starting to fall out.’”

Amy would push past the pain and not back down.

“She was gung-ho from the start that she was going to beat it,” said Jean.

What was a dark time turned into instant elation when the news came back after exploratory surgery and several rounds of chemo that her scans were clear — she was cancer free.

There was no sign of sarcoma in the summer of 2014, and Amy participated in Charles City’s Relay for Life. The event encourages cancer survivors to walk around Central Park to raise funds and support cancer awareness.

Amy’s hope and determination were re-energized, her spirit awoken.

“As we were going around, she put her arm on my shoulder and she said, ‘I’m going to be walking that survivor walk,’” said Jean. “That’s kind of tough every year near now.”

But that good news was short-lived as the cancer came back three months later, in the fall.

“When it came back, it came back with a vengeance,” Jean said.

Jean remembers talking to Amy about the severity of her disease in the midst of all the surgeries and medical procedures done. Amy’s sister is a nurse and Jean said she studied up on her type of cancer but really didn’t share a whole lot about it. But Jean does remember a revealing moment when Amy shared her thoughts about her affliction.

“She said, ‘Mom, I knew more than I wanted to know,’” said Jean.

Amy would eventually have three surgeries, the last coming in October of 2014. The alternative to not doing the surgery wasn’t pleasant.

“We knew then if they hadn’t done the surgery we would have lost her within a few weeks,” said Jean.

Amy remained positive to the very end.

“We weren’t allowed to cry. We couldn’t be sad. She wanted everybody happy all the time. That’s just Amy,” said Jean.

The final six months of Amy’s life were ones of fulfillment and promises kept.

There would be good times and hard times, but near the final moments and end of Amy’s life she received what she had worked so hard to accomplish — her teaching certificate.

Amy’s effort to achieve that personal goal was hindered by her chemo treatments. She delayed her second eight-week session of student teaching, but would return later to seal the deal.

Just eight days before her death, students lined up outside the school at Washington and waved to her in celebration as she headed toward the door to her school to receive her certificate.

“She was so weak she couldn’t open the door. People had to open it for her,” her mother said.

She received that certificate from Duane Magee, executive director of the State Board of Educational Examiners, who personally handed it to Amy on that grand day.

The tears of joy wouldn’t soon be wiped away from Amy’s face.

“I’ve been waiting a long time for this,” Amy said.

A final note to a life well lived.

“Then a week later she was gone,” said Jean.

Amy died on April 29, 2015.

The Amy (Boley) Heiter Scholarship Award was created in 2016 and honors student athletes who exemplify some of her traits, such as “never giving up.”

Amy’s love of basketball was only topped by a desire to teach.

“She liked seeing that lightbulb in that child and they’re so inquisitive,” said Jean. “She just enjoyed watching them learn new things. She said ‘I wanted to help somebody else like I was helped.’”

She got to do both in a life that that was lived to the fullest. Although Amy isn’t around anymore, her words still echo. She had a simple wish before she passed, according to Jean.

“Her wish is that the awareness is out there,” said Jean.

That’s what the yellow ribbons are for.