For teenage cancer survivor, supporting troops is a labor of love

While her classmates were looking forward to homecoming, Veronica Heredia, a senior at Hialeah Gardens High School, was getting ready to have a kidney removed. After misdiagnosing her multiple times, doctors finally spotted a tumor on her left kidney in November 2012.

“Cancer is something that can hit anybody, and it’s not something that you can prevent,” said Heredia, 18. “They thought I had everything else before they found it, then after a few scans, they stumbled across the tumor forming.”

Two months before she was diagnosed with cancer, Heredia began working with America’s Moms for Soldiers, a Pompano Beach-based charity that has sent more than 40,000 packages of snacks, health and personal items to troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. She was able to deliver 200 packages to them before getting sick.

Heredia was in the hospital when she received a letter of thanks from the group, which inspired her to do even more this year.

“When I got the letter, I was amazed. I started planning what I wanted to do this year and exactly how I wanted to do it,” she said. “We passed out fliers, collected boxes and tried getting as many people involved as possible.”

Following her surgery, Heredia completed seven months of chemotherapy and radiation until she was cleared of cancer on July 3.

“The hardest part was going back to school while doing the chemo,” she said “People didn’t know I was sick. When my hair fell off and I started using a head wrap, people bullied me and would ask if I was changing my religion or something.”

After her fight with cancer, she dedicated herself to her project, which she calls “Operation Support Our Troops.” With the help of classmates and students from local schools, she gathered 554 boxes, which she turned over to America’s Moms for Soldiers last Saturday at her Hialeah home.

One of the primary reasons Heredia started this project was to honor her brother, Daniar Betancourt, 28, who joined the Marine Corps in 2004 and has completed two tours in Iraq.

“It’s really nice to see the drive and the initiative that she has to be involved in something like this,” Betancourt said. “Being the recipient of programs like that, I know what a big impact that makes and how it feels knowing you weren’t forgotten about. It makes a difference in the quality of life that you have while you’re on deployment. ”

Improving the quality of life for soldiers overseas is the primary objective for Lauren Ackerman, mother of four and vice president of America’s Moms for Soldiers.

“Veronica found us and told us she had her own operation,” Ackerman said. “I met with her, and she loaded up my van, leaving me virtually no space to see, but I didn’t care.”

Heredia’s mother, Marta Betancourt, was the one who contacted Ackerman this year and let her know about her daughter’s desire to work with her again. She talked about her daughter’s focus and dealing with her condition.

“There wasn’t time to get upset or depressed,” Betancourt said. “As a parent of someone with cancer, you have to have enough energy and push them through it, and we have to show more strength without ever showing a sad face.”

With her mother’s support, Heredia learned to look at her experience with cancer as a positive one and embrace it.

“Going through the cancer experience made me realize that cancer is just another accessory to beauty,” Heredia said. “It’s another way to look at yourself as a beautiful person no matter how you are.”