Alberta Cancer Foundation

Heather's Heroes

Towards a Cure: Alberta Cancer Foundation trustee Heather Culbert amassed a 100-person strong team of walkers for the Calgary Shopper’s Drug Mart Weekend to End Women’s Cancers.

Photo by Doran Clark

It showed up as a shadowy spot on the mammogram.

When Heather Culbert got that breast cancer diagnosis, her treatment choice was simple. “I wanted to stop the cycle,” Culbert says. “I went radical and decided to have a mastectomy instead of a lumpectomy, where you’re not sure whether they ever got it all.” In October 2009, doctors removed Culbert’s left breast and then did a reconstruction at the same time.

Culbert had seen the effects of cancer for most of her adult life, long before her own diagnosis. Her mother Connie Cooper, 73, has had breast cancer three times, colon cancer and liver cancer. “I had seen her go through lumpectomies, chemotherapy and radiation treatments,” Culbert says. Her mother’s experiences prompted Culbert to join the Alberta Cancer Foundation as a trustee. “I wanted to make a difference. I’d seen what was going on around us, what had happened to my mother, which was devastating, and I wanted to see what I could do to make a difference.”

After three years of involvement with the Alberta Cancer Foundation, two of them as a trustee, Culbert was named the honourary chair for the 2010 Shopper’s Drug Mart Weekend to End Women’s Cancers in Calgary. She would be the official spokesperson for the event, in which thousands of women and men would take to Calgary streets on July 24-25 in a 60-kilometre journey, raising funds to support research and treatment of women’s cancers, through the Alberta Cancer Foundation. A month after accepting the position as honorary chair, Culbert was diagnosed with breast cancer. She doesn’t believe it was a coincidence.

A life-changing day
Culbert’s mother, Connie Cooper, was 52 when she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She had the tumour removed. A decade later, a routine cancer antigen test showed the presence of cancer cells again. This time, it was liver cancer and Cooper had to have a portion of her liver removed. Then, she faced two bouts of breast cancer.

In August 2009, Cooper heard she had breast cancer for a third time. Later that day, her daughter would come into the same office to hear the same words: “You have cancer.” Cooper remembers wanting to get out of the office before her daughter showed up for her appointment in the afternoon. “I didn’t want her to know I had cancer,” she says. “I had a lump. It was very small. It showed up as a shadow on the mammogram.”

For Cooper, this was her fifth cancer diagnosis. For her daughter, it was a first and a day that changed life as Culbert knew it. Culbert’s diagnosis, along with her mother’s, gave her a renewed vigour, a new reason to throw herself behind fundraising efforts for the Weekend to End Women’s Cancers. “It just made me that much more passionate about it,” Culbert says.

Heather Culbert began gathering Heather’s Heroes.

Building a team of heroes
Culbert told Linda Mickelson, CEO of the Alberta Cancer Foundation, that she wanted to create a mega-team and do some mega-fundraising for the Weekend to End Women’s Cancers. Culbert started gathering some of her closest friends into a team. They called themselves Heather’s Heroes, and they set their sights high from the very beginning. “We wanted to raise $550,000,” Culbert says. She sat down with 12 of her good friends to start thinking of ways to achieve this lofty goal.

The team got a big boost early on from well-known Calgary philanthropist and team member, Patricia Davidson, who said she’d donate $1,000 for every person on Heather’s Heroes, up to a total of $100,000. “I think that was the motivation all along,” Culbert says. “We wanted to have 100 people. We wanted to have the biggest team, wanted to raise the most money and make the biggest impact we possibly could.”

Initially, the membership roster was slow to grow, but Culbert asked each person on the team to find one other person, or more, to join the team. “It starts with an idea and then it takes off because people get enthused being the best they can be,” Culbert says. When it was time to walk, Heather’s Heroes had exactly 100 members, both women and men, ranging in age from 16 to 74 years old. The team designed a logo of pink walking ribbons of various sizes, designed to show the diversity on the team.

Heather’s Heroes had four corporate sponsors: Progress Energy donated $50,000, Enerplus sponsored $45,000, Synergy sponsored $10,000 and RBC stepped up and sponsored $5,000, for a total of $110,000 in corporate sponsorship.

Walking for a cure
For team member Jen Vorobiev, joining Heather’s Heroes was a no-brainer. “I figured, I have a young daughter. We spend most of our day running around anyway. I could handle it,” she says.

Vorobiev is no stranger to breast cancer. She was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was a 28-year-old new mother and her daughter, Sophia, was nine months old. With the help of a new drug called Herceptin (trastuzumab), Vorobiev is cancer-free today.

Soon after joining the team, Vorobiev raised $5,000 with help from her family and friends. “There are no words to describe how you feel when something like this happens and the support you receive after,” Vorobiev says. “I have to live it as if every day is my last. Something like this gives me hope that there will be breakthroughs in the research.”

Walking 60 kilometres isn’t an easy feat and it took Heather’s Heroes months of training to prepare. Finally, the day of the walk arrived and Culbert’s whole family came out. Her sister, mother, daughter, husband and her friends, walked. More than 100 members strong, Heather’s Heroes walked for about seven and a half hours the first day and six hours the second day. “That 60-kilometre walk is long and hard,” Davidson says. “It’s pure determination. You do it for the greater good.”

Culbert and her mother walked together as team co-captains. Cooper says they supported each other all the way. She walked because her daughter was doing it and that was the bottom line for the 74-year-old grandmother. “It was really hard,” Culbert says. “You can train and train and train, but you never get the whole combination of the weather and the distance. I think the whole purpose of the walk was to get people to realize. You have to feel the pain to really appreciate what people go through.”

Though the 60-kilometre journey was tough, being a member of the biggest team in the walk came with some perks. Heather’s Heroes had a road crew, devoted to the needs of each participant and funded by corporate sponsors. Called the Pamper Van, the vehicle was staffed by upbeat volunteers and provided cold towels, ice, exercise mats for stretching, first aid for minor medical needs, and had a supply of sunscreen, hair clips, mouth wash, temporary tattoos and other small things for the heroes participants.

Each one of Heather’s Heroes had her, or his, own reasons for walking and fundraising. Some members had undergone cancer treatments, others were family members and friends, but their simple determination and spirit to support the cause was the same.

WEEKEND TO WALK: Walkers in the Shopper’s Drug Mart Weekend to End Women’s Cancers raised more than $4.3 million over two weekends in Calgary and Edmonton.

Crossing the finish line
After the weekend walks ended, Vorobiev thanked Culbert. “Every dollar that gets raised for something like this is a hope that my daughter won’t have to go through what I did,” Vorobiev told Culbert. “And, that there will be enough research done, that I can go to her wedding.”

In the following week, Heather’s Heroes were bruised, battered and stiff, but ecstatic. When the tallies came in, the team raised approximately $648,048.47 during the Shopper’s Drug Mart Weekend to End Women’s Cancers. The team’s effort, when combined with all 1,114 Calgary walkers, raised $2.7 million towards cancer research. In Edmonton, walkers on the weekend of August 7-8 raised another $1.6 million. All told, all the heroes who walked raised $4.3 million towards the Alberta Cancer Foundation to support treatment and research of women’s cancers.

To be part of the 2011 Shopper’s Drug Mart Weekend to End Women’s Cancers, go to