Her Pain Was Dismissed, She Fought for Diagnosis

Lena Weib

Heidi Richard, 47, spent a year trying to convince doctors there was something wrong with her body, but her worsening stomach symptoms were dismissed as anxiety, acid reflux and mono. In 2020, she was finally diagnosed with lymphoma — cancer of the lymphatic system. After grueling treatment, the Worcester, Massachusetts, elementary school teacher is getting ready to run the Boston Marathon. She shared her story with TODAY.

I’ve been a runner since high school and I had always been a really healthy person. But in the spring of 2019, I started experiencing severe stomach pains at night, vomiting and night sweats.

When I went to the doctor, they did some blood work and said, “You’re young, your stomach issues are probably due to stress or anxiety.” They gave me an antacid and sent me on my way.

But I kept having severe stomach pains and vomiting. I lost 30 pounds unintentionally and had gotten pretty thin. I was trying to eat, but I was just unable to — I was just getting so sick. That summer, I went back to the doctor and they thought I had mono. Tests showed I didn’t have it. The doctor thought I was maybe too stressed out from work and gave me an anxiety medication. I was told to keep taking the antacid.

But now, these stomach symptoms, instead of just happening at night, started happening during the day. In February 2020, I was training for the Providence Marathon when I started noticing fatigue. I couldn’t keep up with the group and my back really hurt. I started having some swelling on the side of my neck.

I went to the doctor again and they started to blow it off again. They said I pulled a muscle and gave me a muscle relaxer. That’s when I said, no, I want some kind of imaging test.

‘I was always asking somebody to listen to me’

A CT scan showed something suspicious, which led to a biopsy. In April 2020, I was diagnosed with stage 4 diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

It was everywhere: my abdomen, spleen, bone marrow, sternum, lungs, groin and neck. A mass in my abdomen was pushing my intestines to the side — that’s why I was having those stomach pains.

I often wonder if I would have been taken more seriously if I were male. Doctors kept saying, “Oh, it’s anxiety or you can’t handle the stress of your job or you’re overreacting. It’s not a big problem.” I don’t feel like they would have said those things to me if I had been a man.

And I believed them, even though I knew something wasn’t right. I was always asking to be seen or asking somebody to listen to me. It was frustrating.

‘You have to know your body’

Know what your baseline is and when something is wrong, don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion or ask for that test. Don’t be afraid of sounding like a hypochondriac — that’s what I was afraid of and luckily I spoke up when I did, because finally I had enough.

You’re the one who knows yourself the most and if you’re not feeling your best, you need to advocate for yourself.

Sometimes, I think about: What if I hadn’t demanded that imaging test? It might have gone on even further, and maybe they wouldn’t have been able to do anything.

I had to undergo chemotherapy for several months and then had an autologous stem cell transplant in January 2021. I now receive immunotherapy, which trains your own immune system to kill cancer cells. Every three weeks, I go for an infusion that lasts about three hours.

I’m really tired for about 48 hours afterwards and my joints are achy. I’ve had to schedule around that as I trained for the Boston Marathon — I couldn’t do long runs on the weekends when I had the immunotherapy infusion.

Richard hugs her oncology nurse after running the Hartford Half Marathon in Connecticut last October.
Richard hugs her oncology nurse after running the Hartford Half Marathon in Connecticut last October.Courtesy Heidi Richard

This will be my first Boston Marathon. I’ve done the training, I’ve done the miles. I feel ready in that regard. Emotionally, I’m a little anxious. I feel “nervexcited,” which is a word that my daughter uses when she’s nervous but also excited for something.

I’m not as fast a runner as I used to be. I get tired more easily, so I have to take walking breaks. But no matter what happens, I know I’m going to finish. Running a marathon was an analogy that one of my nurses and I used during my treatment to help me gauge where I was. She would say, “You’re at the 10-mile mark right now” or “You’re in the final five miles.” So to run a marathon after using that analogy throughout my treatment feels like coming full circle.

Next fall marks two years since I’ve been in remission — that’s when then my risk of relapse goes down. Because of the chemotherapy medications I took, I have a greater risk of breast cancer 10 to 15 years from now. But that was a risk that I was willing to take. 

I’m lucky enough to be healthy enough to be out there for the Boston Marathon and doing what I love to do. Even if I have to walk and it takes me way longer than I expect, I’m going to get it done.

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