Student sees cancer as a blessing

by Katie Kemp

There are certain dates that stand out in our memories and can’t pass without some sort of observation — birthdays, holidays, anniversaries. Most of these are happy occasions, but for Searcy native and Harding University senior Heidi Abston, there’s one date that stands out to her for slightly different reasons. It’s September 2, 2010 — the day she was diagnosed with cancer.

Abston was just in the ninth grade when her cancer journey began. Having just moved with her father to Searcy from Mesquite, Texas, she was going through the typical process for a teenage girl in a new town — adjusting to life in her new home, making new friends and getting back out on the softball field with a new team. But her story took a sudden turn during a softball game that would change her life.


“I had a paralyzing pain that brought me to my knees,” Abston said. “I remember my dad scooping me up to take me to Unity Health and then being transferred to Arkansas Children’s Hospital. My mom and sister arrived around 2 a.m. to be with me.”

Doctors found that Abston had a tumor wrapped around her spinal cord about the size of a brick. On April 20, 2010, Abston underwent a surgery in which doctors were able to remove about 70 percent of the tumor without posing a risk of damage to her spinal cord, and she seemed to be on the road to recovery. That was until a few months later, when the paralyzing pain in her back returned as she was playing volleyball. 

On Sept. 2, Abston’s worst fears were realized — she was diagnosed with cancer.

“I remember going back to my room that night and crying on my bed because I couldn’t believe this was happening to me,” Abston said. “I was very scared and I felt like I was falling and falling and would never stop. But at the same time, I was determined to be faithful. We were surrounded with friends and family as we walked through this journey.”

As Abston began treatment, she found herself surrounded by the support of friends, family and even complete strangers.

“I had an army of prayer warriors that stretched across the continent. Even when I started college, I had people tell me they had seen my name in their church bulletin.”

Abston’s fight with cancer and determination to stay true to her faith were met with plenty of hardships, including an allergic reaction to chemotherapy that led to a stay in the ICU and muscle spasms that called for a year of physical therapy. Now in remission, Abston has found comfort in the fact that she knows she is on this journey for a reason.

“I am still here because God is not done with me yet. I know I have a purpose,” said Abston. “We go through hardships not only for us, but for others. Since being in remission, I have tried my best to encourage others who may be dealing with the same struggles.” 

It was her resilience, faith and grace in the face of a nasty disease that led CARTI to reach out to Abston about receiving a Dennis Jungmeyer Scholarship. On May 31, Arkansas First Lady Susan Hutchinson assisted CARTI representatives in presenting $3,500 scholarships to 18 pediatric cancer survivors and Abston among them.

“The scholarship I received has helped me not worry or stress over the financial burden of school,” Abston said. “Harding University has been a light to me and my family. I have received tons of encouragement, prayers and support while attending and I have really felt cared for while being here.”

A few weeks after graduating from Harding with her degree in accounting, Abston will get married and move to Texas to begin working on taking the CPA exam. As she starts to look toward the next chapter of her life, she’s able to look back on previous ones with a fresh perspective.

“I no longer view my cancer as a devastating disaster, but instead as a blessing that has strengthened my faith and made me who I am today. I’m thankful for my struggles because without them, I wouldn’t have stumbled across my strengths.”

September 2, 2010, still stands out to Abston as one of the darkest days of her life. But as she looks back on her journey, she sees more than just the trials she faced and the heartache she endured — she sees a community that surrounded her with love and prayer, lessons that made her stronger, and a faith that kept her grounded and determined through it all.