In 2009, Renee Heidtman was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 29. When she found out the cancer had actually spread to her liver and she was stage IV, she knew the only real option for her — one that allowed her to do what she thought was best for herself and her lifestyle — was an all-natural approach. She still wanted to have kids someday, and the toxicity of treatments like chemo and radiation deeply concerned her.
Rather than immediately getting a lumpectomy and starting chemotherapy, which her doctors advised, Renee opted for several different natural therapies in the hopes of beating cancer on her own terms.
She practiced yoga daily and met with a large support network of therapists and counselors in an effort to stay active and independent. She researched The Gerson Therapy approach and raised money to go to their center in Mexico; she began following their “non-toxic” regimen of raw juicing and coffee enemas. When she came back from Mexico, she enthusiastically continued the treatment at home, recruiting the help of strangers and her family alike to help her with the amount of juicing she had to do. She shared videos of her journey on YouTube, remaining optimistic, upbeat, and hopeful.
But her health continued to decline.
One day, her younger sister Rita realized enough was enough. Rita was over at Renee’s juicing for her, and she says that Renee suddenly “doubled over and screamed in pain while pounding her hand on the table.” Renee urged her to reconsider doing chemotherapy.
In fall of 2012, after trying for years to naturally stop the cancer’s progression, she agreed to do chemo and met with an oncologist again. She found out that the cancer had metastasized to her heart and lungs, in addition to her liver. She forged ahead with chemotherapy.
After months of chemo treatment, they discovered the cancer had spread to her brain, over 50 lesions in all. So she added radiation to her regimen.
And for a while, it seemed like there was still hope: the tumors shrunk and some disappeared. But, eventually, they came back. And her oncologist informed her that there was nothing else they could do. Renee was terminal.
She was placed into hospice care, and at 32 years old, was faced with the decision of how she wanted to die. She chose to spend her last days at home. Her sister Rita became her caretaker, eventually quitting her job and raising money through online support sites so she could devote all of her time to her sister.
The financial burden on the family was large, and managing everything from hospital bills to grocery bills, rent, and other essentials was difficult.
Around this time, National Geographic contacted the family about doing a documentary on Renee, and Renee instantly agreed. She wanted to share her story, show the world what she had accomplished with her life, and discuss the positive impact she was leaving behind. Rita, however, was less sure, and anxious that the documentary would be exploitative rather than showing the world the beautiful woman she knew her sister to be. But after meeting with the producers, Rita’s fears were assuaged, and the documentary I Am Dying was created, giving viewers an intimate look at Renee’s last days and highlighting the challenges cancer brings to an entire family.
On April 11, 2013, after just under six months of hospice care, Renee passed away at home surrounded by her beloved family, just as she wished. The documentary aired on the Discovery channel over two years later, on June 13, 2015.
Renee took unconventional paths to treating her cancer which ultimately cost her her life, but Rita says the important thing is that her sister lived and died on her own terms.
“Throughout my sister’s treatment,” Rita writes, “everyone wanted to tell her what to choose. After her death, at age 32, people questioned whether things could’ve been different if she had chosen another option. The problem is that there are no answers to that question. Cancer is indiscriminate. Sometimes there are no good options to choose from. But by following her dreams, staying positive, and being true to herself, my sister made the right choices for her.”
Cancer is indiscriminate, and no treatment is a surefire way to permanently rid your body of the disease forever. But, please, listen to your doctors, seek out more than one medical opinion, and do what’s best for you while keeping in mind that science, technology, and medical research hold a wealth of information; clinical trials and new medications are constantly being tested. While feeding your body wholesome, unprocessed foods may very well help your body heal as it fights to rid itself of cancerous cells, Western medicine is not something to be underestimated or ignored — it regularly saves lives.
C. Dixon likes to read, sing, eat, drink, write, and other verbs. She enjoys cavorting around the country to visit loved ones and experience new places, but especially likes to be at home with her husband, son, and dog.