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Cancer survivor’s focus back on field
NEWARK, Del.—Heather Hartman did her best to blend in with the rest of the college students coming in and out of the coffee shop near the University of Delaware campus.
She wore shorts and a T-shirt and had the easygoing demeanor of a 21-year-old without a care in the world. But Hartman, who grew up in Fredericksburg, is not like most college students. Her experiences have given her a much different perspective.
As she sat at the coffee shop and told her story, she stroked her shoulder-length blond hair—the same hair she lost while undergoing chemotherapy treatments. She wore the same necklace she was playing with almost two years ago when she discovered the large cancerous lump near her collarbone.
The reminders of her fight with Hodgkin’s lymphoma are still there, but Hartman is free of the disease now. A senior starting defender for Delaware’s field hockey team, Hartman is on pace to graduate in May and is captain on a team with aspirations to win a Colonial Athletic Association championship this season.
“I think it’s kind of nice to not be recognized with it as much anymore,” she said. “I want to be known for something more than the girl who had cancer in college.”
Hartman, who won consecutive Free Lance–Star all-area player of the year awards while at Mountain View High School, isn’t just back on the field. She’s playing at a high level and helping lead a team that is in first place in the conference one year after finishing sixth out of eight teams.
“Heather is playing her best hockey right now as a senior in college,” Delaware head coach Rolf van de Kerkhof said. “Instead of showing up and playing, she has shown up to improve. It’s just a joy to see her play, and as she has matured as a hockey player, her on-field performance has improved.”
Hartman didn’t want to take a year off from hockey, even after going through five months of physically taxing treatments during the off-season prior to her junior year. She never missed a game, and she also maintained a normal academic course load and finished the semester with her highest grade point average to that point.
“She’s such a fighter,” said Robin Woodie, a family friend and Hartman’s coach when she played for the High Voltage Field Hockey Club. “You look at her now and it’s like you don’t even know she went through anything.”
‘THIS IS KIND OF WEIRD’
Hartman was in a hotel in Atlanta on New Year’s Eve in 2011 when she first felt the lump near her left collarbone.
She was there with the family of her longtime boyfriend, Jacob Hodges, who played football for the University of Virginia. The Cavaliers were preparing to meet Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
“I remember I was playing with my necklace and I just felt this big bump, and I was like, ‘This is kind of weird. What is this?’ Jacob’s sister was there, so I showed her to make sure I wasn’t crazy, and she was like, ‘Oh, no, I see something,’” Hartman said.
“So we started Googling what a lump on your neck meant. And of course WebMD tells us I’m gonna die, but she started going through the symptoms. ‘Do you have night sweats?’ No. ‘Do you have a fever?’ No. ‘Have you lost weight?’ No. So she was like, ‘Good, because that would be really bad.’
“But that’s what it ended up being—Hodgkin’s.”
Hartman’s cancer was isolated to the lump, offering promise for a complete recovery. George Hartman, Heather’s father, remembers the first meeting with her oncologist.
“We were on our way out the door, and the doctor patted me on the back and said, ‘Dad, I wanted to tell you this. I don’t have a plan for treating your daughter. I’m going to cure her,’” he recalled. “That’s how confident he was with this type of cancer.”
Nevertheless, the cancer diagnosis floored Hartman and her family. She cried a lot in the days after her diagnosis, especially on her visits with Hodges in Charlottesville.
“She did get upset around me and it was hard because I wanted to be upset, but I knew I couldn’t,” said Hodges, now a graduate assistant football coach at U.Va. “I knew I needed to be there for her.”
Hartman’s parents said they were an emotional mess in the immediate aftermath of her diagnosis and did a poor job of hiding their fears.
Heather reached out to her older brother Logan and asked him to talk to their parents. She needed her family to be strong.
“Logan told us, ‘Heather’s the toughest chick I know, and if anybody is going to beat this, she’s going to beat this, but she’s not going to beat it if you guys can’t keep it together,’” said Lori Hartman, Heather’s mother.
Heather Hartman saw an instant change in her parents’ demeanor. They were still scared, but they were strong in front of their daughter.
“Logan was the one who kept us glued together,” Lori Hartman said.
‘BIGGER THAN ME’
Hartman went through four months of chemotherapy treatments and then another three weeks of radiation.
“I know she woke up every morning saying, ‘I’m going to beat this,’” Logan Hartman said. “She kept saying, ‘I’m not going to let cancer beat my butt.’”
The chemo treatments made Hartman sick at times, and she also developed painful mouth sores. The worst side effect, she said, was losing her hair. She wore scarves and caps to cover her bald head, but she still drew unwanted stares.
But the attention wasn’t all bad. Hartman said she had many cancer survivors stop her, ask what kind of cancer she was fighting and encourage her to stay strong.
“It was kind of cool because afterwards you kind of joined this secret club or society that only people who have ever had cancer would understand,” she said.
Her friends in the Fredericksburg area also did a lot to encourage her.
Massaponax field hockey coach Lindsey Heppner and James Monroe coach Jamie Tierney put on a fundraiser game at Massaponax, and former Mountain View track standout Logan O’Baker sold T-shirts as a fundraiser at the Marine Corps Historic Half marathon.
The players and coaches of the High Voltage Field Hockey Club, for which Hartman played and coached, wore black and yellow wristbands honoring her. They also wore pink bows in their hair, just like the one Hartman wore for every game. They made a big banner that the players and coaches signed.
George Hartman had lime green and purple wristbands made that said, “UDFH No. 1, Fight like a girl,” and mailed them out to family and friends, many of whom sent back donations.
Medical insurance paid for much of Hartman’s treatment, which left a lot of extra money from the fundraising efforts. At her request, the money was donated to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“I think it felt like it was bigger than me then,” said Hartman, who also donated her hair to Locks of Love. “People who you hadn’t really talked to were buying T-shirts or saying, ‘I’m wearing this bracelet for you,’ so it was kind of cool to see that, people who you weren’t necessarily friends with but they still thought about you and cared enough that they wanted to show you that they were supporting you.”
‘SHE’S COME BACK STRONGER’
Hartman was determined to return to her team in time for her junior season, but van de Kerkhof gave her an ultimatum. If she didn’t pass her fitness test during training camp, she would have to sit out the year as a redshirt.
Heather took that as a challenge.
Even as she was going through physically taxing chemotherapy treatments and radiation, Hartman found time to exercise in some capacity. She started out with light jogs and working out on an elliptical machine, and as she started feeling better, ramped up her training.
Ken Woodie, a family friend who also works with local athletes as a strength and conditioning coach, put Hartman through a workout in his home gym during the time she was going through treatments.
“I remember when she came here with no hair and a baseball cap and was determined to go downstairs and work out because that’s what she had always done,” Woodie said.
“She didn’t want anybody else here, but she needed to know, ‘Can I go through a workout and finish it?’ And she did. She threw up afterward, but she needed to do that. That was as frail as I’d ever seen her, and she still went through the workout. You look at her now, and I think she’s come back even stronger.”
By mid-summer, Hartman was confident she could pass the fitness test, which required her to run a mile in 6:30 and complete 25 50-yard sprints.
She cleared the mile run in exactly 6:30.
“I think I just didn’t want to fail. The last lap you could hear [coach van de Kerkhof] counting down, so you just knew I had to get there in time,” Hartman said.
She passed the other part of the test and was cleared to play. Two months later, she was on the field for the Blue Hens’ first pre-season game against American University.
Hartman started and played every minute of regulation in that game before asking to come out during overtime. Her comeback was hardly complete, but she beat the odds by returning to the field without missing a single game.
“Well, I just didn’t want cancer to take me out of the game. I didn’t want it to be the reason I had to redshirt,” Hartman said.
‘I’M THROUGH WITH CANCER’
Clare O’Malley bawled like a baby last November after the Blue Hens suffered a narrow loss to top-seeded Drexel in the CAA tournament semifinals.
“She said, ‘You don’t understand, Mrs. Hartman, we dedicated this season to Heather, and I wanted to win for her,’” Lori Hartman said.
O’Malley, a teammate and friend of Heather’s, continues to use Heather’s triumph over tragedy as inspiration.
“She’s definitely a motivational factor,” O’Malley said. “We know we’re really lucky to be playing the game and even luckier to be healthy.”
O’Malley is one of the few people who still wear the lime green and purple wristband made in Heather’s honor. When she was declared cancer-free, Heather requested that all the wristbands be put away, because she wanted to put the ordeal behind her.
“She said, ‘Take ‘em off. Put ‘em away. Put ‘em in a drawer. I’m done. I’m through with cancer,’” George Hartman said.
O’Malley has gotten a pass, at least for now.
“I wear it every day,” O’Malley said. “We made a promise that we’ll take it off senior game at the end, the last game of the season. It’s on my stick and every time I’m maybe having a rough practice or a rough day and I feel like things aren’t going my way or I’m sad, I just look down at my bracelet and realize how lucky I am. That’s what I get out of it.”
Heather lost 10 pounds during her cancer treatments, and it wasn’t until November of last year that she returned to full strength. She has gotten stronger this season, anchoring a stout back line.
“Her level of play has gone through the roof,” Robin Woodie said.
Her focus now is to join the growing line of Fredericksburg-area players to win CAA rings at Delaware.
“I want one,” Hartman said. “It’s long overdue. I’m glad we’re in that position this year and not next year.”
Cancer has given Heather a new perspective on life. She doesn’t know what the future holds, but she wants to enjoy every moment she has.
That’s why she took an internship in Hawaii over the summer. It’s why she wants to try out for “The Amazing Race” reality game show with Hodges.
“I think about how blessed I am every day,” Heather said. “I see the scarves in my closet. There are little reminders and you think, ‘Thank God I don’t have that on my head today.’ It’s made me appreciate everything a lot more.”
Nathan Warters: 540/374-5442