Michelle Heidrich and her fellow teachers at South Elementary School in Crystal Lake regularly tell their students to make the best of today.
It’s a message Heidrich tells herself as well – one she’s clung to through some of her toughest years.
And today, she continues to send that message both as a teacher and as an author.
Heidrich and her 13-year-old son, Ethan, co-authored the children’s book “My Brother Has Cancer.” Based on the family’s experiences, the book was released about a year after the death of Heidrich’s oldest son, Will, who died March 25, 2022, at age 17.
The book aims to help children going through similar difficulties and take a bit of the scare out of the disease. It’s doing that and more.
“As teachers, we’re here to help others and make the world a better place, and that’s what this book will do,” said Marcia Stlaske, a teacher at South Elementary and one of Heidrich’s fellow second-grade teachers.
Stlaske has worked with Heidrich for more than 20 years and considers her a role model. Heidrich’s son, Will, was her “favorite superhero,” she said.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned from her is perspective. I don’t know of anything harder a parent can go through. … To take the situation and turn it into something beautiful instead of dwelling on it … she’s an inspiration.— Marcia Stlaske says of fellow teacher Michelle Heidrich
Doctors diagnosed Will Heidrich with a rare form of sarcoma, a type of malignant tumor, called desmoplastic round cell tumor at age 14. He’d been losing weight, and his parents noticed his abdomen protruding.
He also had tumors in his jaw, shoulder and lower back. Treated at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, he went through chemotherapy, radiation and surgery to remove the tumors.
But after more than three years, his body just couldn’t handle it anymore.
Through it all, Stlaske said, the family tried to stay positive. Will showed more concern for those around him, while Michelle often talked about others worse off than them.
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned from her is perspective,” Stlaske said. “I don’t know of anything harder a parent can go through. … To take the situation and turn it into something beautiful instead of dwelling on it … she’s an inspiration.”
Along with helping families cope with cancer, Stlaske said, the book shows students that they, too, can and should write.
“My Brother Has Cancer” aims to raise money for the Will Heidrich Foundation for Pediatric Cancer Research, willheidrichfoundation.org, created by family members in Will’s memory. The book can be found through the foundation website and at store.bookbaby.com/book/my-brother-has-cancer.
As the title suggests, it tells the story of Ethan coping with his brother’s cancer. Ethan suggested the book to his mother when Will was alive. Will saw a rough draft before his death and gave his blessing.
“The main reason that we, and me personally, wanted to publish this book is you mainly hear the story about what it’s like having cancer or how the parents feel about it; however, there’s not much when it comes to the perspective from perhaps a sibling or a younger child,” said Ethan, a seventh grader at Bernotas Middle School in Crystal Lake.
At 9 years old when Will was diagnosed, Ethan said talking to people helped him cope.
“It might not be the same for everybody, but my parents were very open to whatever I wanted to talk about, whether it was good or bad,” he said. “Even though you might not want to in the moment, it definitely helps in the long run.”
He and his mother hope sales of the book help advance research for pediatric cancer, especially when it comes to rare cancers. Funding for those type of cancers is limited, Michelle Heidrich said.
According to the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation, only 4% of federal funding for cancer research goes to studies on pediatric cancers.
“We just have to be part of the solution,” she said. “Now more than ever, now that [Will] is gone, we have to make him proud. And we can’t stop fighting just because he’s gone. There are other kids who need our help, too – other families.”