Stafford mother of five leaves legacy of love, service

There are a few precious people in this world who are able to turn tragedy into strength, and Heather Bishop, 41, was one of those people. A longtime area resident, she died Sept. 12 following a struggle with stage IV colon cancer. Yet it is the story of her life, and not her death, which affected so many people.

Originally from Eureka, California, Bishop moved to Stafford County with her husband, Jeremy, and their four children when he had an offer of federal employment. The couple settled in a quiet community prepared to spend their lives there, earning a living and raising their children. Shortly after their arrival, the couple welcomed the birth of their fifth child. That is where the story takes a turn.

Heather had a difficult pregnancy and had to endure months of bed rest due to extreme nausea and fatigue. After her youngest son was born, Heather looked forward to feeling better, and returning to a healthy lifestyle. Following the birth, however, Heather still noticed irregularities in her body and sought advice from her physician, who sent her for tests and imaging. In August 2014, Heather was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer at 38 years old. She was more than a decade younger than the average age the American Cancer Society recommends beginning to have screenings for colorectal cancer at 50.

For many, a diagnosis this severe would have meant concentrating solely on the very worthy battle of becoming healthy. But for Heather, service and friendship were a way of life, and she was not going to let cancer stop her. In fact, she redoubled her efforts to live life to the fullest.

A woman of immense faith, Heather continued to serve in callings, or volunteer positions, within her local ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. She began to advocate for earlier colorectal screenings in adults. Heather’s efforts led her to the local grassroots organization Ellie’s Elves, and Joni Kanazawa.

As fate would have it, Joni and Heather had children in the same class at Grafton Village Elementary School the academic year after Heather received her diagnosis. The two women met because Heather had found some helpful information for a child Kanazawa was helping through her charity, Ellie’s Elves. They connected over late-night discussions aimed at helping families suffering with cancer.

“There was this woman with stage IV cancer, offering her help every time I turned around,” said Kanazawa, who heads the local charity that helps families in crisis, especially those with cancer. “[Heather] brought meals to Erin Fines, Julie Pellegrino, and their families as Ellie’s Elves sought to help those women fight their own cancer battles.”

While battling cancer and raising her family, she continued her service by bringing meals to families affected by cancer, making signs for the Pink Heels Color Rush 5K and stuffing appreciation bags with the Elves for the Stafford County Sherriff’s Office. She also encouraged her children to raise money for Saint Jude’s Children’s Hospital.

When Heather became too weak to keep up with the physical demands of multiple service projects, she enlisted her brother, Paul Edmonds, to join her efforts. A residential handyman, Heather often sent him to perform work she could not.

“He renovated bathrooms, painted, tore up floors, fixed plumbing, you name it. All because his sister asked him to,” Kanazawa said. “She made no judgments, and asked no questions. She simply asked to serve.”

As news of Heather’s recent passing spread through the community, a large butterfly bush quietly bloomed outside of the home of the parents of Erin Fines—a family Heather had repeatedly served over the last few years. It had been a gift from Heather to the Fines to represent transformation their daughter was going to experience after her death. The once-small bush now flourishes in a mass of leaves and blooms.

For more helping families in crisis due to cancer, email Kanazawa at letitshine.joni@gmail.com. To find other ways to serve in your community log on to JustServe.com.