Husband and wife survive battles with cancer together

Monday, April 20, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:27 a.m. CDT, Monday, April 20, 2009
Heather Carver and her daughters Tricia, 8, and Ellie, 6, walk the survivor lap during the Relay for Life on Stankowski Field. Carver is a breast cancer survivor and participates, along with her team "A Few Folks and a Clown" in Relay for Life each year. "I'm the clown," joked Carver.

COLUMBIA — With darkness still a couple of hours away, the luminarias lining  Stankowski Field for the 2009 Relay for Life had not yet been lit. The field on this early April evening hummed with college students and community members wearing purple and white T-shirts.


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Bill Horner, under a white straw hat, walked from tent to tent, checking in. As one of the faculty advisers for MU's Relay for Life, Horner, who teaches political science at MU, oversees student participation in the event, which raises money and awareness for cancer research.

Meanwhile, Horner's wife, Heather Carver, was setting up her team's tent and getting her children — Tricia, 8, and Ellie, 6 — ready to recite the pledge of allegiance at the opening ceremony. The annual relay is an all-nighter, with the sponsored teams walking the track until 6 a.m. Someone from each team is always walking, while others rest and cheer on their teammates. 

The relay is held at different times throughout the year in communities nationwide, and the majority of participants have been touched in some way by cancer. For Horner and Carver, the tie is particularly strong: Horner has been cancer-free for 12 years, Carver for three years.

Carver, who teaches theater at MU, has told her story about getting a bilateral mastectomy publicly through her play, "Booby Prize: A Comedy about Breast Cancer." The play premiered in the winter of 2007 at MU’s Corner Playhouse. Proceeds from the performance were given to MU’s Relay for Life, and the play raised more than $2,000 dollars for the relay.

In 2005, Carver began noticing pain in one of her breasts. At 37, she was still three years from the age when routine mammograms are recommended.

“While all this was happening, I didn’t think I’d have breast cancer," Carver recalled. "I was hoping it would be some sort of cyst or something benign. But tests showed that it (a tumor) was highly suspicious for cancer.”

After cancer was confirmed, Carver had a difficult decision to make, and she had to make it fast.

“Because it was invasive breast cancer, and it was so large, I talked to the doctors about having both of my breasts removed," she said. "If I had just done the one, the likelihood of me getting cancer in the other breast and not being able to treat it aggressively was high, so I had a bilateral mastectomy.”

Throughout her journey to recovery, Carver drew great support and comfort from her husband.

“Bill is a wonderful human being," she said. "I don’t want him to get too big of a head, but having someone who is a survivor as my caregiver was so beneficial because they get a lot of stuff that you don’t have to say. That was a really huge support for me.”

Horner's story is less publicly known. A dozen years ago, when he was 28, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. His condition required surgery and radiation but was fairly easy to treat, he said, because the cancer was caught early on.

“Bill was someone who was never sick a day in his life,” Carver said. “It was extremely scary.”

After undergoing radiation treatments, his cancer went into remission. Times were better for the couple, who accepted teaching positions at MU — Horner in political science and Carver in theater.

Horner said his experience did not affect his family as much as his wife's illness did.

“It was scary at the time, but it was not that bad compared to the experience Heather has had,” Horner said. “Heather’s experience with cancer makes mine look like a case of the flu.”

At the time of Carver's diagnosis, their daughters were ages 4 and 2. Horner said the couple told their children about their mother’s illness in a straightforward way, while trying to keep things positive.

“We told the kids that Mommy was sick but that she was going to get better,” Horner said.

Over the course of her radiation and chemotherapy treatments, Carver found ways to maintain a happy family life. When she began to lose her hair, she allowed her daughters to pick out her wigs and hats. After school, Horner scheduled activities with the girls so Carver could sleep and be well rested come dinner time.

“We just kept trying to make life normal for them," Carver said. "When you do that, when you have a focus like that, it helps you too. In the midst of me working toward normalcy for the kids, I started to feel more normal myself.”

Carver said that throughout her illness, Tricia and Ellie were sources of sweet support, checking on their mother as often as possible.

“Tricia was very much trying to make sure that I was healthy. She was always checking on me," Carver said. "Both of them were making sure mommy was OK. The hard part about chemotherapy from a kid’s perspective is that as they’re treating you to get better, you begin to look very sick.”

Horner said his family persevered together.

“It’s definitely been a team effort, both between the two of us and also with the girls," Horner said. "We talk about our family being a team often.”

In 2006, while Carver was still undergoing treatment for breast cancer, one of Horner’s students, Melissa Horn, suggested that Horner and Carver participate in MU’s Relay for Life. The couple decided to attend, although they knew little about the event and had little free time due to Carver’s illness.

“So I hear Bill’s got some student with some relay, so we go. I’m in the middle of treatment. I’m bald, I’ve got two kids, and none of us knew what this was," Carver recalled. "But we showed up, and we started walking around that track.”

That year, both Carver and Horner participated in the survivor’s lap at the beginning of Relay for Life. It's reserved for cancer survivors only, who are applauded as they make a symbolic journey around the track. Carver participated that first year and found herself overwhelmed by the support from students and other participants cheering her on from the sidelines.

“To have all these people who were working so hard to raise money and provide ways of caring for cancer survivors, it was so powerful for me.” Carver said. “I didn’t even have enough energy to stay for the dinner. We just walked the track during the survival lap.”

The following year, Horn again approached Horner, this time telling him the MU relay needed faculty advisers. This year marks the third year that Horner and Carver have served in that capacity. Their team — called "A Few Folks and a Clown," referring to Carver's play, "Booby Prize" — has raised more than $16,000 in three years. This year alone, they raised about $6,690.

Horner and Carver have found a variety of ways to raise money for the relay. In 2007, they contacted Michael O’Brien, dean of the College of Arts and Science, asking him for his support. O’Brien adopted MU’s Relay for Life as a cause for the college; he supports it personally and at the college's annual banquet.

“When you see people like Bill and Heather, you really want to support what they’re doing,” O’Brien said. “I think they’re the force behind the Relay for Life program at MU.”

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