Beating the Odds

Diagnosed with non–small cell lung cancer 10 years ago, the disease altered the course of my life but not my sense of purpose.

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Richard Heimler

I have dedicated my life to raising awareness of lung cancer and helping other survivors find information and support. When I was first diagnosed with the disease, I didn’t know where to turn for guidance, and I want to spare other people that sense of helplessness and fear.

—Richard Heimler

I know it sounds odd, but the past 10 years spent living with non–small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) have been very productive, wonderful years. It is not the life I had before my diagnosis, but it is the life I remember most clearly, and knowing how deadly this cancer is, I’m grateful for every day of those years.

I never expected a diagnosis of lung cancer. A nonsmoker, I’ve always lived a healthy lifestyle and was surprised when I began having chest pains after returning from a business trip to London. Although just 44 at the time, I was worried that I was having a heart attack or stroke and saw a cardiologist immediately.

A battery of tests found my heart was healthy, but I had a 3-cm spot on my right lung. A biopsy confirmed that it was stage IA NSCLC. After surgery, my remaining lung was only at 30% breathing capacity, due to scoliosis that was diagnosed when I was younger. Over the years, I’ve managed to increase my lung capacity somewhat. Although I can no longer work full time, I am able to lead a fairly normal lifestyle.

Coping With Cancer Recurrence

After the surgery, I was bombarded with a series of standard chemotherapies, including cisplatin, carboplatin, paclitaxel, and vinorelbine. Despite the extensive treatment, over the past decade, I’ve had eight recurrences: three in my brain and several in my chest and remaining lung, with the latest lung tumor diagnosed in June 2014. Having a recurrence in my remaining lung was my worst fear, but my oncologist was able to keep me ahead of the disease with chemotherapy. Although the prior tumors never completely disappeared, they remained stable for several years.

Then in 2010, I got lucky when my oncologist sent a tissue sample of my primary tumor for molecular diagnostic testing and found that my cancer was ALK-positive. I was enrolled in a clinical trial investigating crizotinib (Xalkori), and for 4 years, the drug worked wonders for me, either shrinking my tumors completely or keeping them from progressing.

When the cancer recurred in my lung this past June, the tissue was screened for new mutations, and I was prescribed ceritinib (Zykadia), a newer ALK inhibitor, and it is working. What’s more, ceritinib appears to prohibit brain metastases, so I’m hoping it will prevent new tumors from developing in my brain.

Living a Purposeful Life

I know that if these two drugs hadn’t been discovered, I probably would not be alive today, and since my diagnosis, I don’t take any days for granted. I’ve always been a person who tries to get the most out of every day and sees the glass half full, but there is no question that over the past decade, I’ve become even more conscious of living a more fully engaged life. I make it a point of seeing my children, parents, and friends more frequently and telling them how much I love them.

I have also dedicated my life to raising awareness of lung cancer and helping other survivors find information and support. When I was first diagnosed with the disease, I didn’t know where to turn for guidance, and I want to spare other people that sense of helplessness and fear. I also want to give people hope that although lung cancer is not curable, it is treatable and manageable, and it is possible to live a full and meaningful life.

Cancer Is Imbedded in My Life’s Blueprint

Although I’ve been beating the odds for more than 10 years, I want more time. Like most parents, I’d like to see my children get married and have children, but, ultimately, I know that whatever the future holds is out of my control. For some reason, cancer is now imbedded in my life’s blueprint, and the rest of my life will unfold the way it is meant to. In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.

If my disease does become uncontrollable at some point, I won’t have any regrets, because I know my oncologist has done everything possible to keep me alive. He has been with me every step of the way, and when I’m having a bad day, he encourages me to see him or calls me on the phone and reassures me. I’ve put my life in his hands. What a wonderful gift it is to find a doctor you can trust with your life.

Despite the challenges over the past 10 years, I have a wonderful life. Rather than a story filled with sadness and despair, my story is one of hope. That is the message I give to my family, friends, and other survivors. ■

Richard Heimler lives in Stamford, Connecticut. This past June, the LUNGevity Foundation honored Mr. Heimler with its Hero award for his advocacy in lung cancer.


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