When you meet Heaven Evans, “almost 23,” she points out, her bubbly personality and positive perspective on life clearly hides the fact that she daily deals with a cancer scourge she has fought for years and a cancer that may take her life at any time.
No wonder Evans embraces each day she lives with her two-year-old daughter and her fiancé as a day to be cherished.
“My life goal is to help people to believe in faith and hope,” Evans said. “I can raise my daughter better and take my trials as a lesson and do better with it.”
Evans has endured countless trials, physically, mentally and spiritually battling a very rare form of cancer called ependymoma. It is so rare Evans’ doctors were only aware of three older men who had the disease before it was discovered in Evans in 2015.
Ependymoma is primarily a childhood disease of which the National Cancer Institute reports there are many forms. Malignant cells form in the tissues of the brain and spinal cord. Evans said tumors were found in both her brain and on the spinal cord and the result is a constant pain that can reach severe levels.
“It’s really painful, my back always hurts, it feels like the insides of my body are really hurting and there’s really nothing that makes it comfortable,” Evans said. “They initially found the one on my spine and it was so big. They hadn’t determined if it was cancer yet. But, they opened me up and they found that it had spread to my brain.”
As a result, Evans began full body radiation to the point where no further radiation treatments could be done. She continues treatments at various hospitals and has been to St. Jude in Memphis, along with hospitals in Cincinnati, Ohio, and West Virginia.
Her travels were in part to allow doctors to do research on her concerning the cancer and possible treatments. In fact, Evans was told she is the first patient in the country to allow doctors to experiment on treatments using her as a subject.
“When they found out, there were only three people and they were older people and they were all men,” Evans explained. “They were older and they had already lived their lives so they didn’t allow doctors to do any research. The doctors didn’t have any research on this form of cancer.”
The results of those treatments were not always pleasant, Evans admitted.
“My body reacted to the chemicals really bad on some of the trials,” Evans said. “They actually had overdosed me on chemotherapy and I had swelled up so bad that my body was stretching to even pulling my stitches along my spinal cord out. I was 91 pounds and I went up to like 148 pounds, all in like three days.”
Evans proudly announces her age “almost 23” because doctors in 2015 said they were giving her just months to live.
“At age 18, I was given six-to-nine months to live and now I’m nearly age 23 and I have a baby,” Evans said. “She’s completely healthy.”
Her daughter, Gracelynn Roush, had been addicted to pain medications during Heaven’s pregnancy and doctors had advised against birth.
Today, Heaven calls her daughter “a blessing.”
“I’ve been blessed, my daughter’s healthy and I’m here for a purpose,” Evans explained. “God used me to help others who are lost souls.”
And that’s Evans’ attitude to life at this point. She continues treatment that doctors prescribe and Spring Valley Hospice in Olive Branch comes to do home care on a weekly basis.
But she’s not going to look for the latest predictions from the medical community about her life expectancy. She is just thankful for each new day.
“I just got to a point that I just decided I would put my trust in God and started praying for my own sake,” Evans said. “I’ve already outlived their expectations so much that I’m not going to let something like this bring me down. I have more hope than that.”
She said she has become an influence to some of her friends who deal in drug addictions or need a dose of spiritual encouragement. But most of all, the message of Heaven Evans is to always have hope, or as she stated, “You’ve got to hold on to something and have hope.”
Bob Bakken is Managing Editor for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.