Heather MacAllister, EMU grad, dies at 38.

A former student of mine, Heather MacAllister, died Feb. 13, in Portland, Oregon, after a three year fight with ovarian cancer. She was a remarkable student, a creative person, a seeker of truth, and a fighter for justice. If I recall correctly she was an African American Studies/anthropology major, but no category can encompass the range of her interests.

She directed the LGBTRC in the late 1990s, and the range of her community activism is unparalleled: she organized to bring Muslim and Arab-American civil rights after 9-11, served on the boards of Al-Fatiha (the nation’s only national organization for sexual minority Muslms) and of Transgender Michigan, and advocated for the rights of fat people, to name just a few. In recent years, she founded Big Burlesque and Fat Bottom Revue, which I never got to see. In 2005, Leonard Nimoy photographed Heather and her dance troupe for his exhibit “Maximum Beauty”.

I will always remember Heather as one of those great students, who eagerly learns what the instructor has to teach, and much more, and who teaches the instructor a lot too. Her critique of the Stephen Speilberg film “Amistad”, which came out while she was taking HIST 315 with me, was devastatingly pointed, funny, and educational all at once. She delivered the critique spontaneously but it came across with the strength of a fully developed performance piece. She could have been a great professor, but she had other tasks….

Memorials are being held in several cities for Heather, including one in Detroit at 4210 Trumbull on Feb. 25 at 2pm. I recall her speaking fondly of EMU, yet always, both toward EMU and toward the rest of the institutions on this poor ol’ planet, she had creative ideas for making improvements. Such a patriot!

Heather died way too early, but she touched the lives of many, and her works and her love will live on.

5 responses to “Heather MacAllister, EMU grad, dies at 38.

  1. I’m wondering if there was any family history of ovarian cancer in Heather’s family? It’s unusual to be diagnosed at such a young age. So tragic and my heart breaks for Heathers’ family and friends.

    FYI – FORCE: Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered at http://www.facingourrisk.org can provide information to those seeking answers about ovarian cancer and its’ hereditary risk.

  2. Debbie,
    Your question is a good one. But i don’t know anything about Heather’s family medical history. Thanks for providing the link to some good information on ovarian cancer. Heather would be glad.

  3. “Heather MacAllister — burlesque performer, activist”

    Wyatt Buchanan, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer

    Saturday, February 24, 2007

    Heather MacAllister, a burlesque performer and activist for heavy people, the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community and other groups she viewed as oppressed, died Feb. 13 in Portland, Ore.

    Ms. MacAllister was 38 and had ovarian cancer, though she ended her life through assisted suicide, surrounded by friends.

    “The spirit of Heather was really about three things: loving yourself and taking care of self and others; social justice in whatever form; and she was a performer and artist. She was glamorous, an extraordinary performer and stunningly beautiful,” said Tina Palivos, a close friend whom Ms. MacAllister called her “heart sister.”

    “She created this powerful dynamic that by loving yourself, you can extend that to loving other people,” Palivos said.

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/02/24/BAGE5OAJRC1.DTL&feed=rss.bayarea

  4. Hi there. Heather did indeed have a history of breast cancer in her family; her mother died from it at age 38, and her sister is still fighting it. Heather strongly advocated for her friends taking care of themselves, getting health care, and not avoiding going to the gyno. (she had us sign contracts as her bithday present promising to get paps and breast exams!). She was on the lookout for breast cancer, but had no idea that she was at risk for other cancers.

    As it happens, Heather and her sister both tested and discovered they have the BRCA-1 gene mutation (often called one of the known/mapped “breast cancer genes”). She tested, in part, to find out whether her cancer was a type known to be estrogen-receptive or not (it was not) in her course of treatment.

    What isn’t commonly known is that people who specifically have BRCA-1 and 2 mutations are at higher risk for ovarian cancer (I think 45% higher than the average?). This is not true for everyone with breast cancer in the family; it’s specific to these particular mutations. BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 predominantly occurs in families of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, but certainly not always (nor was Heather’s family). People of many ethnicities have been mapped with these mutations, and possibly because more Jewish people of Ashkenazi descent have had gene testing than other ethnicities (my guess).

    Ovarian cancer is so deadly because it is very difficult to detect until it is well underway. Most people who *are* at risk for it are pretty unaware that they are–and screening for this still leaves much to be desired. Right now, in the U.S., the recommended screening for people who are known to be at higher risk for ovarian cancer is to get a transvaginal ultrasound plus CA-125 (cancer marker) blood test every 6 months. Neither one of these tests alone has been known to be incredibly effective early on, and there are several false positives, but it is at least some recourse to try and track changes that may be happening before it’s too late.

    Sorry for the deluge, but I wanted people to know that there are risk factors, and some of them are “mappable.” Gene testing specifically for the breast cancer mutations costs about $350, and is covered by many insurance policies in MI. UM doctors (affiliated with their Cancer Genetics center) can help people who think they are at risk to test for this.

    If breast cancer runs in the family, you are considered to be at higher risk whether these mutations run in the family or not; but it is a good way of finding out whether or not you are also at higher risk for ovarian cancer.

  5. Thank you, Devra, for this very helpful information.

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