Richard Heimler, though he may not call himself a hero, has battled cancer an astounding seven times and is passionate about instilling hope in other cancer survivors.
It was 2004, when Heimler was getting off a plane, that he first felt chest pains. His friend, who is a doctor, took him to the emergency room, thinking Heimler was having a heart attack. After undergoing a variety of tests, an X-ray showed a small spot on his lung.
Heimler sat down with Healthline to share his experience. “Of course, my friend didn’t believe I would have lung cancer, because why would I?” said Heimler, pointing out that he never smoked.
After a PET scan and a biopsy revealed that he had lung cancer, Heimler had surgery to remove his right lung. “That’s what they told me would give me my best chance for survival,” he said.
Willing to Fight
Recalling his reaction when he was diagnosed, Heimler said, “You just don’t know. Nothing makes sense. It’s so surreal. I was 44 years old and I had very young children, and I went into a fight mode. I was going to do anything I could to stay alive. My kids were too young to lose their dad, and my parents shouldn't have to bury a child.”
Heimler continued, “The doctors convinced me I’d be okay with one lung. They exaggerated a little, but I’m alive ten years later and I don’t know if I would have been otherwise. It was the right thing to do. Now, ten years later, they probably wouldn't remove my lung. But ten years ago, that was the best option.”
Since having his lung removed, Heimler has had surgery and radiation for brain cancer. He has also had a tumor in his chest surgically removed, and he has multiple tumors on his left lung.
Testing Positive for a Rare Gene
Heimler credits his participation in Pfizer’s clinical trial for the drug Xalkori for his success in battling cancer. In order to qualify for the trial, Abbott Laboratories tested him for a gene called ALK. He was found to have the gene. “Only three to five percent of people have this gene. I was very lucky. I don‘t know if I’d be alive today if I wasn't eligible for this clinical trial four years ago,” he said.
His doctors suggested he participate in the trial because, although he was stable on chemotherapy, "it was not getting rid of the cancer," Heimler said. "I have always trusted my doctors. I tried it and it was a miracle. For four years, I was almost cancer free, so that was great."
Heimler was recently switched to Novartis’ Zykadia. “It is the secondary line of drug after Xalkori and it’s getting better results,” Heimler said.
Heimler's advice for new patients is to be driven and discerning about their healthcare. “Don’t just go to your local hospital. Go to the hospital that sees these things the most, and find doctors you trust with your life and hospitals that have access to all of these different clinical trials," he said. "Lung cancer is so aggressive that you really want to get it right from the get-go."
Spreading the Word
With all that he has endured and is still going through, Heimler is not bitter or sad. Quite the contrary. He spends his time volunteering for organizations that raise funds for lung cancer research, organizes his own fundraising walks, serves as a phone buddy to other cancer survivors, and has even made a documentary, which has gone viral.
Speaking about his role as a phone buddy, Heimler said, “Because I've had cancer for ten years, a lot of family and friends refer me to other people who are going through this. I will do anything I can do to raise hope. They like hearing my story. I tell them not everyone is going to be the same statistic, so they are happy, and it inspires them to think maybe they can also live more than one year, or more than five years, with lung cancer. Hearing my story is helpful.”
Heimler said that cancer survivors have many questions about treatments. “It’s nice to talk to someone who’s been in the trenches like I have. They’re scared. They want to know if they do this, will they be okay, and should they do this? I’m not a doctor. I can’t say yes, but I can tell them, from my own experience, what my life has been like in the last 10 years with different types of treatment. They are happy to talk to someone who’s willing to share their story. Most people don’t want to talk about it.”
A Very Happy Anniversary
One of the unique ways Heimler is sharing his experience is in a documentary called Richard’s Rays of Hope. In its first five weeks, the documentary has had more than 4,000 views on YouTube and 11,000 hits on Facebook. “That’s phenomenal,” said Heimler.
Every year, on the anniversary of his diagnosis, Heimler has sent a letter to his friends and family. He doesn’t provide an update on his health, but rather thoughts on his outlook on life and lessons learned from that particular year of living with cancer. Heimler said that for his 10th anniversary, “I decided to do something bigger. This documentary turns a negative into a positive. We took my actual X-rays and gave them to family and friends to paint them. I wanted to turn a negative into a positive with something bright and cheery. It really was neat. It’s been nice. I’m hearing from people from all over the world who are watching the documentary.”
The LUNGevity Foundation, a lung cancer-focused nonprofit working to raise awareness about the disease, has taken notice of Heimler, recognizing him as its June Hero of the Month. “I’m happy to do any kind of advocacy work that I can. LUNGevity recognized me for my advocacy work and lung cancer awareness, with my video and my desire to raise hope for other people living with lung cancer. I really appreciate that,” said Heimler.
"Lung cancer is no longer a death sentence. It’s treatable," Heimler added. "Things are changing quickly. It’s a new world. We’re seeing new treatments. There are many clinical trials that are very promising, and drugs that are getting FDA approved."
Watch Richard’s Rays of Hope on Youtube.