A pipe dream becomes reality for cancer survivor Heather Yang at Disney Half Marathon

Heather Yang has overcome a lot in her life, which gave her the inspiration to complete the Walt Disney World Half Marathon. Walt Disney World Resort

Heather Yang was around Mile 11 when the feeling of dread washed over her.

This wasn't what she prepared for.

She'd trained for her first half marathon in biting Chicago weather, the breeze off Lake Michigan providing the jolt she'd need to keep going another mile. Buffalo-born and Army-bred, Yang could deal with the cold.

But down in Orlando on Saturday afternoon, running the Walt Disney World Half Marathon in mid-70s weather, the sopping heat taking hold, Yang wasn't sure if she'd be able to go on.

Then she thought of what she's been through.

Bosnia. 9/11. Iraq. Cancer.

And she dug deep.

"So many doubts were coming into my mind, and a lot of the times when I am faced with those struggles, where I think I can't do something, I think back on the things I've already done that are way worse than running 13 miles. Thirteen-point-one miles? I can do 13.1 miles."

And she did.

One step at a time

Yang got back into running three years ago, joined a running group in Chicago and built her way up. Friends convinced her to run a 5K, then a 10K, then when they pitched the idea of a half marathon, Yang said, "If I'm going to achieve this goal, I want it to be back home."

So she prepared for the Buffalo half marathon, building her stamina mile by mile.

She was about 10 miles into her training program when she awoke one morning in 2018 with terrible stomach pain.

First, they thought it might be diverticulitis. Then they discovered a mass in her colon but downplayed the lasting repercussions. She didn't get much better. She went back to the doctor and got the dreaded news: stage 3 colon cancer.

"As soon as the nurse came in, I knew something was not right," Yang said.

She'd require surgery and intensive chemotherapy.

Training? Out the window. A half marathon? Pipe dream.

Yang was devastated. But, she says, resolved.

"It stripped me of something," she said. "Running can be very annoying sometime, but the feeling you get when you finish is so rewarding. Sometimes I never knew if I'd get the feeling again. But I had this goal in my mind, and it was something I wanted to do, and I wasn't going to allow the sickness to take that from me."

She was diagnosed on Sept. 10, 2018, finished with chemo on March 27, 2019, and by May of last year, she was up and running again.

She started slowly and worked her way back. Each step was one step further away from cancer. Every mile was celebrated.

"That's my message to anyone with cancer: Every little thing, I celebrated, every goal, I celebrated," she said. "You have to appreciate every little step along the way. It was the same when I decided I'd run the half. I had to come to terms with the idea my body wouldn't be what it was before I was sick. I came to peace with the fact this is the new me. Everything I can do going forward is a bonus, I see. It's a blessing."

From Buffalo to Bosnia

She was 22 years old and a student at Buffalo State College when a man in a uniform knocked on her classroom door one day, entered the room and asked if anyone was in the Army Reserve or National Guard.

It was Sept. 11, 2001, and Yang was the only one who raised her hand.

Years prior, at the age of 17, she'd enlisted in the Army Reserve. She came from a middle-class family in upstate New York; this was a way to afford college. She signed on to be in the military police. On weekends, while her friends would be at movies or county fairs, she was being barked at by a drill sergeant.

Both of her grandfathers had served; she felt a higher obligation. Plus, she figured, it was the reserve. No way was she going to see active duty.

"I lived in Buffalo," she said, "I figured the worst that could happen is we'd have to shovel snow."

Then she was sent to Bosnia for a year. She was 20.

She made it through without much incident and returned to her tiny liberal arts school. She sought a degree in communications. She wanted to be in publishing. Not a violent bone in that body.

And then, 9/11.

"The guy comes in, I'm told to report immediately, no idea what's going on," she said. "I walk out of the class, and I get into my dorm room just after the second plane hit."

She had three hours to report but, as she was trained, she already had a bag ready. She made it to the armory in time, loaded up into Humvees and drove from Buffalo to New York City, where, she says, "It was straight chaos."

They lived in the basement of Javits Center on cots. For two weeks, search and rescue at ground zero.

The memories are still hazy. It was a heavy time.

"Somewhere," she said, "I still have my red badge."

Yeah, of courage.

And if that was the end of Yang's story, it would be enough for two lifetimes.

Acts of heroism

"Karma Police" by Radiohead was playing over the Humvee radio when the first mortar hit. That she remembers.

She was in Iraq, sent over on Valentine's Day 2003, of all days. No chocolates and roses that day.

She'd chosen to reenlist, capitalizing on a reupping bonus, figuring she'd already committed to six years of active duty and two years of inactive when she signed up for the Army Reserve. But she had no idea she'd end up in Iraq. No idea she'd face RPG fire and IEDs.

No idea she'd be on that hill one night as mortars rained down.

She was a driver for the military police, and earlier that same morning, she knew something wasn't right. For a military driver, their vehicle is a part of their soul, and hers was on the fritz. They gave her another, but that's like giving a sniper someone else's weapon.

"I just had a bad feeling about going to the relay site that night," she said. "But being a female in the military, surrounded by men 24/7, they're not always the nicest to you. 'You're just being emotional.' I have really good intuition, and I was a driver. You're responsible for everyone."

She would be that night.

"It really was like a movie," she said. "Rounds going, no one on the radio, calling for backup. Everything happening in slow motion."

She'd be awarded a commendation for valor that night, risking her life to save her men. When their Humvee broke down on that hill -- big surprise, she thought -- she helped bring it back to life and drove the rest to safety.

"The truck wouldn't start, so I'm running over with the cables, and we got it going and got everyone off the hill," she said. "Hands down, the most intense moment of my life."

Celebrating something worth celebrating

She thought of all that around Mile 11 on Saturday.

The farthest she'd ever run before Saturday was 12 miles.

She had 2.1 left, and wasn't sure if she had them in her. The conditions were challenging. (In fact, the heat persisted for Sunday's full marathon, which was actually shortened by more than a mile for some runners late in the morning).

But she knew what awaited her. The thrill of a lifetime for a Disney fan like Yang, whose earliest childhood memory is walking down Main Street at Disney World's Magic Kingdom. She honeymooned at Disney World, even.

Last summer, she saw a post on social media by Disney seeking inspirational stories for marathon weekend. All her friends said, "Heather! You have to send in your story!" But Yang demurred. No one is going to read it, she figured. But, mostly to get those friends off her back, she sent in her story.

Months went by. Yang forgot about it.

In September, she heard from Disney that it was passing her story up the chain.

In December, she found out she'd been selected.

It struck a chord.

"All along during chemo, the thing kept me going was knowing at end of treatment, I was going to Disney World," she said.

Coming down Main Street on Saturday, Yang was awash in emotion.

"I was just overwhelmed," she said. "The smell of Main Street, getting to run toward the castle, people cheering for you, hearing my story over the loudspeaker. To know I've made it there -- it was just very, very emotional. It was everything I could've hoped it could be."

She was joined throughout the run by her close friend and running buddy from Chicago, Laura Hennigan. The two met a decade ago playing roller derby in Chicago, and they've run several races around their hometown. Hennigan saw Yang dig deep.

"She had her eye on the prize, and she just did not give up," Hennigan said. "It was a non-negotiable for her. She was going to complete that run."

And she did.

It wasn't pretty, she said, and it was very hard.

But she finished. And she celebrated, celebrated something very worth celebrating.

Her life.

"We've been calling this my victory lap," Yang said. "There was no way I wasn't running."