Sept. 15, 2011— -- Heather Burcham died in 2007 when she was 31. Cervical cancer killed her. She was misdiagnosed at age 26, and by the time she knew she had cancer, it was too late for effective treatment.
But she changed lives by living hers so passionately.
She was deeply religious, quick-witted, loving, with a quirky sense of humor; and she was determined to save other young women. Her passion for a cause made her a "Person of the Week" on ABC's "World News" program in 2007. Heather likely would have been shouting from the rooftops in frustration, listening to the current political debate about the HPV vaccine.
For her, the HPV vaccine was about saving lives, not politics, not campaign donations. She probably would have been heartbroken to hear Texas Gov. Rick Perry backtrack from his commitment to have girls vaccinated against cervical cancer.
Perry made her the poster child for his HPV executive decision, and spoke eloquently at her funeral. What a difference four years later as he debates the topic with other Republican candidates.
Her words to ABC News in 2007 still resonate, in light of the current debate in which this one face of the disease has been lost amid the political rhetoric.
"I don't want to have died in vain," she said. "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."
Burcham, a Houston teacher, understood that people had questions about the vaccine. She wanted parents to educate themselves about cervical cancer, which kills about 3,700 U.S. women each year.
"It can happen to women as early as 18," she said. "Cancer knows no age, knows no race, 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."
Heather was most concerned about the suggestion that girls would become sexually active because of the vaccine.
"I believe that is not true, that it's going to cause girls to become more promiscuous, because parents give their children their values," she said. "I think it is so important for parents to get this vaccination for their daughters, so they can live their lives. If I can help take this cancer away from one child, to keep one child from suffering like I am. If I could get them to understand, then I will have done my job as a human on this Earth."