Glioblastoma patient inspires others to move, to advance treatment for rare disease
In July 2021, Heather Walker, a fun-loving wife and mom of two, was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer, after a horrible headache landed her in the emergency room. Despite the shocking news, she immediately decided not to dwell on it, but rather to make the best of it while making a difference at the same time. She soon became a Jimmy FundRaiser and the Move 4 Heather Challenge was born.
Move 4 Heather is an effort to raise funds for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Jimmy Fund while inspiring folks to do things they’ve never thought they’d do, from swimming with sharks to trying a new food, hiking, and everything in between. Donors are encouraged to pick something from their bucket list that moves them, share it on social media with the hashtag #m4h, donate to the Heather Walker Fund, and challenge three friends to participate and donate. To date, friends and strangers alike have answered the call, raising more than $180,000.
“It has always been inherent in my personality to give back,” Heather says. “I lost my dad to leukemia when I was 17 and my mom recently went through breast cancer. I have a strong platform and I am happy to use it to make a difference and help the many people battling this disease.”
“I feel gratified knowing that people are reaching into their own bucket lists and doing something that moves them,” continues Heather, who played basketball in college and loves spending time outdoors skiing, hiking, paddle boarding, surfing, kayaking, and more. “The love and support that everyone has shown fills my heart and is beyond words.”
Since her diagnosis, Heather has taken time off from her job as Vice President of Public Relations for the Boston Celtics to receive three long months of treatment, including surgery to remove the tumor followed by six weeks of daily radiation treatment, which her husband, Stephen, drove her to each day. The hour-long drive from Marblehead took a lot out of them both, but their family and community stepped up to hold down the fort for them and their two daughters, Samantha and Taylor. The couple celebrated the end of every treatment week with a Friday night beer in Beacon Hill, often joined by some Celtics colleagues.
Money raised by Heather’s community through Move 4 Heather will support the Heather Walker Glioblastoma Fund at Dana-Farber, under the direction of her oncologist, David Reardon, MD, clinical director of the Center for Neuro-Oncology. Dr. Reardon and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are exploring immunotherapy solutions to treat glioblastoma, including the vaccine therapy with which Heather is currently being treated. Based on each patient’s unique tumor and DNA, the goal is to boost the immune system, so if Heather’s tumor does come back, as glioblastoma typically does, her cells will be ready to identify it and attack it. Her age, otherwise healthy body, and the size of her tumor made her a perfect candidate for the clinical trial.
Historically, glioblastoma has been difficult to treat with immunotherapy, because of the few immune cells that exist within the brain tumor. Personalized neoantigen vaccines cause immune T-cells to move into the tumor, and a checkpoint inhibitor, an immunotherapy drug, then releases the “brakes” on the immune system, allowing T-cells to attack the tumor. This type of neoantigen vaccine was first pioneered by Catherine Wu, MD, a Lavine Family Chair for Preventative Cancer Therapies at Dana-Farber, and has been successful in providing long-lasting anti-tumor response for patients with melanoma.
“This trial could be a game changer and save the lives of many people battling glioblastoma,” Heather says. “People are dying every day from this disease, and Dana-Farber has the talent and resources to fight it. Cancer is a team effort, and I know I have the best team.”
Heather has seen an outpouring of support from the Boston community these past few months, particularly from her colleagues at the Celtics. Current and past players, front office staff, and communications colleagues have shared messages of love and strength along the way, and are helping to spread the word about Move 4 Heather.
“I feel so fortunate to work for a company that treats me like family—from phone calls to texts, in-person visits, donations, and even an extraordinary birthday video from the whole team, including past Celtics players like Paul Pierce, Shaq, and others,” she recalls. “It warmed my heart, brought tears to my eyes, and emboldened me to continue this fight.”
Today, Heather is still in treatment, but feeling well and excited to keep moving—for herself, her family, and everyone battling glioblastoma. She plans to cross a few items off her own bucket list soon, but for now, she loves being able to see what others are doing. “If I’m having a bad day, looking through what people are doing and watching their videos and photos, it helps me get through everything. It inspires me.”
Support patients like Heather by joining The Dana-Farber Campaign, our ambitious, multi-year fundraising effort to prevent, treat, and defy cancer. The Dana-Farber Campaign will accelerate the Institute’s strategic priorities by supporting revolutionary science, extraordinary care, and exceptional expertise. As a community, we have the power to create a more hopeful, cancer-free future—in Boston and around the world. Together, we can defy cancer at every turn. Learn more about The Dana-Farber Campaign at DefyCancer.org.