Teacher Was Diagnosed with Cancer After a Nurse Dismissed Her Symptoms for a Year as 'Anxiety'

Heidi Richard is gearing up to run next week’s Boston Marathon in support of a charity advocating for early cancer screenings

Heidi Richard
Photo: Heidi Richard

Third grade teacher Heidi Richard was preparing to start a new school year in August 2019 when her doctor's office told her, once again, not to worry about her symptoms.

Richard, 47, had called her primary care physician's office a handful of times by then. She had only been treated over the phone so far, by the same nurse practitioner. What started as a sore throat and swollen glands in the spring turned into a feeling of general un-wellness that wouldn't pass. The nurse sent her to a lab, and multiple mono tests came up negative, and her white blood cell count was close to average. The nurse practitioner hinted that Richard was probably just anxious ahead of the new school year, "I got the vibe I was a hypochondriac," she tells PEOPLE.

The school year started, and with it came "severe" stomach pain. She would experience week-long periods of intense abdominal pain without relief. The pain was keeping her up at night, and one day prompted a visit to the Emergency Room. After a twelve-hour wait with no attention paid to her, she had to return home to take care of her two young kids.

She managed through the end of the fall and into the holiday season, but the pain made it hard for her to eat. She was losing weight at a rapid pace. The nurse practitioner had prescribed prilosec, a medicine used to treat heartburn and acid reflux, but it didn't ease any of the pain. "I let it go for a while because I thought, these people are smarter than me in this area," she says. "They went to school for this. They know so much more. If they're telling me not to worry, I'm not going to worry."

It wasn't until February 2020 that Richard was actually seen in person by a medical professional. She had to "demand" an in-person appointment. She was finally able to see a new member of her doctor's team, after the same nurse practitioner had dismissed her repeatedly. This time, her concerns were heard. She was admitted for a CT scan, referred to an ENT, and underwent a series of biopsies in order to determine what was causing the pain and swelling.

In March 2020, almost an entire year after the onset of symptoms, she finally got a diagnosis: follicular lymphoma. It came the same week the world shut down for the coronavirus pandemic.

By that point, what was originally a slow-growing cancer requiring only mild treatment had advanced. She now had diffuse B-cell lymphoma, and it had spread from her abdomen to her lungs and neck.

Heidi Richard
Heidi Richard

Despite receiving a "scary" cancer diagnosis, Richard finally felt a sense of relief. "It wasn't a great thing to find out, but at least people were listening to me now," she tells PEOPLE.

In the summer and fall of 2020, she spent one week in the hospital every month for a period of five months. Then she underwent a stem cell transplant. The treatment posed a high risk: an increased chance of breast cancer in the next 10-15 years. But her oncologist encouraged it, and he was a doctor she trusted. "You might not be here 10 to 15 years in the future if you don't do something right now," he told her.

Heidi Richard
Heidi Richard

She took the following school year off to focus on treatment and recovery. While she still sees her oncologist every three weeks, she's been in remission for 18 months.

Her year-long period of suffering has driven her to run this year's Boston Marathon in support of Westborough, Massachusetts, nonprofit, DetecTogether. Their goal is to spread awareness about the early warning signs of cancer.

While this isn't her first marathon — she ran in Chicago in 2018 — it wasn't necessarily her goal to run again. "When I crossed the finish line [in Chicago], I told my husband I would never run a marathon again, but I put an asterisk on that," she told PEOPLE. "I said, unless a Boston Marathon bib falls into my lap and it's for a charity that's really important to me."

When she got a call from DetecTogether about an open spot on their marathon team, it felt like she had to do it. This time around, her goal is simply to raise awareness for DetecTogether's mission — one that she believes would have changed her own life had she known about it sooner.

Heidi Richard
Heidi Richard

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"What I've learned through DetecTogether [is that] I knew my body better than any medical professional. I know what's normal for me, and those stomach pains — that wasn't normal. If I had known about [their] mission before all this happened, I would have been much more aggressive about getting imaging and being seen immediately."

Now, she wants people who hear her story to remember that they know their body the best. "You know what's normal for you and if something is wrong, and you're not being listened to, ask for another opinion," she told PEOPLE. "I didn't because I was afraid of hurting my doctor's feelings, or making them think I didn't trust them. But a good doctor isn't going to get their feelings hurt."

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