There's a heated debate going on in many states over whether a vaccine that can prevent cervical cancer should be given to all young girls. Since cervical cancer can be sexually transmitted, some believe requiring the vaccination might lead to young girls becoming sexually active. Others believe the vaccine is too new and not enough is known about it. More than 30 states are now debating the merits of requiring vaccination.
Our person of the week has a very strong opinion on this issue. She is dying of cervical cancer.
Heather Burcham is 31 years old. She was misdiagnosed at 26, and by the time she knew she had cancer, it was too late for any treatment to be effective.
"I don't want to have lived in vain. I don't want my life to have no purpose whatsoever. And if I can help spread the word about cervical cancer, and the HPV vaccine, then I haven't lived in vain. … I think that they didn't want to tell someone so young and in such good health that they had cancer … let alone, they were going to die," says Burcham.
Burcham understands there are real questions about the vaccine. People have worries and concerns, and she just wants to make sure people educate themselves about cervical cancer, a cancer that kills 3,700 American women every year. And she does that by telling her own story.
"It can happen to women as early as 18 or 21. Cancer knows no age, knows no race, it knows no gender. It can happen to anyone, and I just beg mothers out there to please research. Please find out all you can about the vaccination before you make up your mind," Burcham says, weeping.
These days Burcham's life is not entirely about a cause. It's about extracting every last bit of joy from every day she has. Her own parents are out of the picture, so when she lost her apartment and health insurance, she was taken in by friends. These friends are now her family.
"Heather's a pretty amazing little girl. I think everybody's amazed how tough she is," says one friend, Judge Norman Lee.
Lee's wife, Mary, adds, "We take one day at a time, and the good days are fewer and fewer between. There are more bad days than good days. As the disease progresses, unfortunately [it] will get worse, but we take the good days and we run with it."
Burcham has since started to enjoy sky diving and traveling, sometimes to New York. And the hope is, next week the Lee family will take Burcham on a cruise.
Lisa, the Lees' daughter, says, "Everything we do with Heather, I realize, is going to be her first time -- first and last."
Burcham realizes her condition gives her certain freedoms.
She says, "For example, ice cream for breakfast. You know, of course, I'm going to let myself have what I want, whenever I want."
And what does she say to those of us who are healthy? What lessons can we learn?
"Maybe just that, how lucky you are, that you get to wake up every day, and it's not in chronic pain. It's not being exhausted, or having … falling asleep while you're eating. That you get to enjoy each moment," says Burcham, "Some people say, 'How do you do it?' How do you wake up every morning? And I say, 'What choice do I have?' You don't have a choice. You have to wake up each morning, but you choose how you do it -- if you're going to do it happy, or if you're going to do it upset. And I choose to live my days happy, and trying to make a difference."