The spot was just the size of a small, frozen pea. Surely it was nothing.
Heather Gonzales ignored her finding for about a month. After all, she didn’t even have a local doctor. Gonzales and her two children, Lily, 10, and AJ, 6, had resided in Statesboro for less than a year. But a couple months after the elementary art teacher noticed the spot she decided to get it checked near the end of the 2016 school year at Langston Chapel Elementary.
“I was at a really great place,” Gonzales said. “Accomplished. Proud. The kids and I felt like this was home. I was the fittest and strongest I’d ever been in my life.”
Langston Chapel wasn’t Gonzales’ first Bulloch County teaching position on her resume. A Georgia Southern University graduate, Gonzales taught at Mill Creek Elementary School for two years before moving away with her military husband.
Several army bases later, Gonzales went through a divorce and eventually returned to Statesboro.
Upon returning to Statesboro, Gonzales jumped into teaching with both feet and immediately joined Crossfit Boro.
“I’d started doing Crossfit during my divorce,” she said. “It was kinda my therapy; that was my happy. I’d been doing it for three years. Crossfit Boro pushed me to compete.”
Gonzales had just started to take part in some competitions. And then she noticed the lump.
“The doctor said it was probably nothing,” Gonzales said.
But a mammogram that was “iffy,” according to the doctor, turned into an “iffy” sonogram the next day, and a biopsy the following day.
“That was on a Wednesday and I was told I should know something by Friday.”
Gonzales said that in her head, she continued to believe it was nothing. But on May 13, 2016 – Friday the 13th – she received a different verdict.
“I was driving to Macon to drop the kids off with their dad for the weekend and the nurse called to ask me to come into the office,” she said. “At that point, I knew. I convinced her to let the doctor call me, even though my doctor didn’t want to tell me over the phone.”
With her kids in the car with her, Gonzales didn’t say much in response to the phone call that revealed she had breast cancer.
“I was eerie calm. It was surreal. I didn’t tell anyone until Sunday. I just had to let it marinate until then.”
If Gonzales hadn’t felt at home here before, she certainly did after the diagnosis. Between the gym and her school, along with assistance from family in Athens who drove down to help, she was well taken care of.
“I’d only been part of the gym for less than a year and they kinda took us in,” she said. “The gym did several fundraisers for me. The gym is a community, not just a place to work out. Everybody is here for everybody else.”
Gonzales said the surgery and cancer treatments were difficult. She had a mastectomy in June 2016 and underwent chemotherapy from August 2016 through December. Her radiation treatment began in January and ended in March earlier this year. She just started the process of surgical reconstruction and she hopes to be be finished with everything by the end of 2017.
Gonzales said her colleagues and administrators at Langston Chapel was completely supportive and hosted fundraisers, too. On a particular day during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, they exhibited that support in a big way.
“I walked in and all the students, all the teachers, everyone was wearing pink,” she said. “There were pink bows everywhere, signs and posters. Each door was decorated and had notes for me.
“I ugly-cried all day long.”
That support was huge for Gonzales’ recovery.
“I didn’t know how I was going to do it; how I was going to get through the year. Single mom, no family close by. I didn’t have a choice; I had to work. I didn’t know how I was going to make it. But the gym and my school, well, it all worked out perfectly.
“Everything came together. To be in such a crazy situation, we were very blessed. The biggest lesson I think God was trying to teach me was to learn to accept help.”
A key to Gonzales’ recovery, too, was her attitude.
“I’m very stubborn. So many people tried to tell me what I wouldn’t be able to do during chemo and radiation. Everyone was hurling things at me at first – it was overwhelming. ‘You’re going to lose your hair; you won’t be able to take care of the kids; you’ll have to stop working out; you can’t lift weights because of the port.’
“I was very cautious and I listened to advice, but I also tested it out on myself. I still have to be a mom; I still have to work, but I also had to find my happy.”
The gym and working out were her therapy.
“I need to be at the gym,” she said. “I don’t go with the purpose of getting a certain dress size – it makes me happy. It relaxes me. I lift heavy, heavy weights, and when I was told I couldn’t lift, I decided to make my own rules.”
Gonzales muscled through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation with just that attitude. But it wasn’t easy.
“I was so sick. Because of my muscle mass, they had trouble getting the measurements right. One round of chemo in particular, it was a doozie.”
Gonzales attempted to schedule her treatments so that the accompanying nausea would hit over the weekend and her dad often came to stay with kids for a full week during those times.
Given the creative and artistic person that she is, Gonzales found an interesting way to top her head during chemo. “I had Friday hair. My students loved it.”
Every Friday, Gonzales wore an iridescent, rainbow wig with gobs of purple and green and orange strands.
“My own kids took a while to adjust to me being bald, so I decided not to be bald at school. My school totally embraced me during that time. Everybody checked in on me often.”
While feeling her weakest during chemo treatments, Gonzales picked out a Strongman Competition in March 2017 and signed herself up. She said she’d always wanted to take part in one and used that goal to help get her through treatments. She continued to attend the gym during chemo and radiation but couldn’t compete.
“Radiation was awful. Sometimes during workouts, I had to hold my arms up because I couldn’t let the open wounds rub against each other.
“I finished radiation on a Wednesday and went to my first Crossfit competition since cancer on that Saturday.”
And then one month later, March of this year, cancer survivor Heather Gonzales deadlifted a car over and over, flipped a 500-pound tire 10 times in less than a minute and carted many other heavy items over a finish line in the Strongman Competition in Macon.
Perhaps the item with the most weight she lifted that day was the third prize trophy she brought home for her division.