The word “cancer” might prompt anyone to run screaming out the door. When Heather Hawkins was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2007, she found herself following that impulse a bit more strategically. Over the next 10 years, she ran around the world, celebrating loudly at each finish line.

“Being diagnosed with ovarian cancer does not necessarily mean the end,” she said. “In fact it can be the very starting point where you see things with fresh eyes and realize that every minute of life is to be lived!”

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Diagnosed with stage 1 ovarian cancer, the Australian mom of two underwent a total hysterectomy, including removal of both ovaries, to stop the rapidly growing tumor.

Her husband, Doug, said Heather’s decision to participate in an unprecedented surveillance program was bolstered by her understanding that she could help other women later. (The American Cancer Association describes surveillance programs as a critical way for scientists and health officials to track cancer for public health reasons.)

“Instead of following the traditional pathway of having chemo and radiotherapy, I was placed onto a regimen of regular blood tests and ultrasounds and CAT scans,” Heather explained. “I was a candidate for this because my ovarian cancer was found at Stage 1. I undertook this, always with the backup plan in mind that if there was any indication of the tumor returning, then I could go straight onto chemotherapy. Almost 10 years later, my cancer has not returned.”

Heather’s diagnosis left her wanting to squeeze every possible opportunity out of the time she has left. She saw fitness as a way to do that but had never run a 5k before, much less a marathon. Doug, her husband of 26 years, describes her as a “51-year-old Aussie mum who has conquered both the Arctic and the Antarctic marathons, the seven continents and the Himalayas – all after having ovarian cancer.”

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Through it all, Heather’s dedication to family has strengthened. When she was diagnosed, daughter, Rebekah, was 14 and son, Cal, was 11. “Doug and I involved Rebekah and Cal every step of the way on my journey with cancer,” she shared. “We had lots of family chats. Naturally there were tears, but there was also laughter and hope. We were always there for each other and we coped as a family.”

Heather said “eating healthily, and exercising gently, and staying involved in life,” helped her cope with her diagnosis, surgery and recovery – as well as the tremendous support and love from her family. They joined her first run – a 4k to raise money for breast cancer – on Mother’s Day 2012. “We trained together and it was their encouragement that kept me going in those early days,” she said. “I couldn’t run very far at all!”

Today, Rebekah and Cal are 24 and 21 and “have blossomed into two incredibly independent and wonderful adults,” Heather said. “We are really proud of them.” The family trains together and their love of adventure spurs each year’s international run choices.

“At the start of races together, we have a hug and tell each other that we are there for each other, and that even though it may get tough, to just to keep going, keep pushing through. We always celebrate loudly at the finish line. It’s so awesome to share these journeys as a family.”

A longtime friend said it’s no surprise Heather has embraced the opportunity to inspire women worldwide. “Heather inspires other women whether they have cancer or not,” said Jo, her friend and neighbor for more than 15 years. “The greatest inspiration is Heather’s humility and determination as well as her calm manner and infectious smile.”

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Heather is dedicated to raising awareness of ovarian cancer symptoms and funds for its research. She is an ambassador for CanToo, an Australian organization that has raised nearly $17 million for cancer research, and represented it last year when she ran the New York Marathon.

“There really needs to be a fresh, new and memorable education campaign for women and girls, highlighting the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer,” she said. “We need to encourage each other to talk freely with our doctors, family and friends, and to never be embarrassed if we notice any changes at all in our bodies.”

Above all, Heather said she hopes her approach to recovery inspires other women to find their own joy. “Get out there and do what you love doing, whatever it is,” she said. “Embrace your family and friends, be bold, be strong and push the boundaries, make everything count and most importantly – be you!”

Heather’s tips for a woman facing cancer:

  • “Talk with your doctor as much as possible.”
  • “Ask lots of questions, even write them down to take with you so you don’t forget to ask anything.”
  • Remember that “Everybody’s journey is different and your health professionals know your health scenario far better than anybody else, and far, far better than any online page.”
  • “Stay positive.”
  • “Celebrate the little victories as well as the big.”
  • “Allow your family and friends to help you.”
  • “Exercise when you are feeling up to it: swim, walk, run, do yoga, Pilates, anything that will help keep you fit… and it’s a wonderful stress release. This advice was invaluable!”
  • “We need to encourage each other to talk freely with our doctors, family and friends, and to never be embarrassed if we notice any changes at all in our bodies.”

Doug described how the couple coped with Heather’s diagnosis: “Heather and I are both Christians with a strong faith, so we have the knowledge that neither of us are alone so that helped a lot. In these sort of situations, you can’t jump ahead and start second guessing where it may all end up. This was very much about living each day as normally as possible and enjoying it the best we could all while [getting] to the next stage.”

Doug shared tips for a partner of a woman facing cancer:

  • “Stop what you are doing and be there for her.”
  • “Ask the hard and silly questions so you have the knowledge and are not dependent on your wife to tell you.”
  • “Make things as normal as possible while at the same time understand you may need to be very adaptable.”
  • Remember “it’s a joint journey as things may also change after surgery for both of you… [but remember] this is the woman you married… ovaries or not.”
  • Talk about ovarian cancer! “If we don’t learn and share, nobody gets any wiser. Learn the details, understand what’s going on and maybe another husband might share [that information] with his wife, and she may find the OC early … not later.”

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Heather’s friend Jo shared tips for other friends of a woman fighting cancer:

  • “Still be that friend: Try to normalize what you can, still laugh and share what you did.”
  • “Walk the journey with them and check in regularly.”
  • “Offer and organize practical help but also just to be there; you don’t always have to have the answers or say the right thing.”