In the early hours of June 2008, Helen Kornick surfed the Web to find help for her daughter Heather, who had recently been diagnosed with adrenal cancer. The 20-year old was originally misdiagnosed and left untreated for a year and a half. Now, the cancer had metastasized and her mother was desperate for information.
On a website where patients, caregivers and medical professionals share information about this devastating disease, Helen posted Heather’s story. Almost immediately, she received an e-mail from Gary Hammer, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Endocrine Oncology Program at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“He left his phone number and said to call him immediately,” Helen recalls. “It was 6:30 in the morning.”
And so, the scared mom from Lake Zurich, Illinois, picked up the phone and called Dr. Hammer as he drove through the rain in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Through this unlikely connection, Heather began treatment at the Cancer Center the following Tuesday.
Today, Helen Kornick remains profoundly affected by her first exposure to the University of Michigan.
“Dr. Hammer was so passionate about wanting to personally help us walk through this,” she says.
Helen remembers her daughter as a powerful, determined, and organized personality. At Indiana University, Heather took on a double major: Jewish studies and political science. It was after freshman year that some troublesome symptoms sent Heather to her primary doctor. After the results from ultrasound, blood tests and examinations didn’t seem to add up, she was referred to a specialist in reproductive endocrinology. Without performing a physical exam or any further tests, the specialist diagnosed her with polycystic ovarian syndrome/insulin resistance, non-diabetic.
For the next year and a half, Heather was treated for a disease she did not have.
At the end of her junior year, her symptoms worsening, Heather sought a second opinion. Her new endocrinologist took a thorough family history, performed a complete physical exam and ordered multiple tests including the CT scan that found a 14-centimeter tumor on her adrenal gland. The diagnosis: adrenocortical carcinoma that had already metastasized.
Heather’s tumor had compromised one of her kidneys and it had to be removed. Soon after the surgery, the Kornick family drove to Ann Arbor. They met with Dr. Hammer, Frank Worden, M.D., a medical oncologist who specializes in endocrine tumors such as adrenal cancers, and a host of other medical professionals associated with Michigan’s multidisciplinary Cancer Center team.
Heather’s treatment at Michigan, which included stereotactic targeted radiation, IV and oral chemotherapy, and a great deal of support and encouragement, gave her five years of life.
Heather graduated from college and for a while, despite many health challenges, she lived independently. She worked as a youth advisor and teacher, had a cat and enjoyed entertaining. She also traveled with family and friends, including two trips to Disney World and three to Las Vegas where she loved roulette – donating her winnings to cancer research through the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life program.
In fall 2012, Heather’s medical team – doctors in Illinois and Michigan, once strangers, now united in her care – told her there were no more options for treatment. They could only treat the symptoms and not the disease.
Heather Kornick passed away on April 3, 2013, just three days after the family returned home from a trip to Las Vegas.
In September 2013, Philip and Helen Kornick returned to Ann Arbor to meet with Hammer and Worden and talk about creating a powerful legacy in Heather’s name.
As a result of that meeting and prompted by Heather’s wishes – the Heather R. Kornick Adrenocortical Cancer Research Fund was established to advance innovative research in adrenocortical cancer, including, but not limited to, early detection and targeted therapy.
Hammer, who is outspoken about the need for physicians to remain engaged with their patients in regards to their experience with illness, says he will never forget Heather Kornick or her family.
“Helen and Phil Kornick are some of the fiercest advocates I’ve had the privilege to know,” he says. “Their love for their daughter drove them to push us hard to learn more and treat Heather with new regimens. Their efforts helped give Heather five additional years of life. And in their work with us, they made me a better doctor; I’m forever grateful for that.”
Take the next step:
- Read more about Heather Rose Kornick and the research fund in her name.
- Subscribe to mCancerNews, the quarterly e-newsletter published by the UMHS Office of Medical Development and Alumni Relations.
- Learn about the U-M Cancer Center’s Multidisciplinary Adrenal Cancer Program.
- Visit Medicine Needs Victors to learn how you can help create the future of medicine.
Giving to the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center helps further our mission to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. You can have an immediate impact by using our online form to make a gift today. Or visit www.mcancer.org/giving to learn more.
The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan for cancer patient care. Seventeen multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.