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Wausau native who lost wife to Leukemia overcomes cancer, completes 375-mile bike ride through Israel

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Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the June 2018 issue of Experience Life magazine. Reprinted with the permission of Experience Life. Photos courtesy of Bill Heyman.

By Bill Heyman

My wife, Jodi, was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. The tumor was invasive, but it hadn’t spread. We were both 40, married 15 years with two young kids. After her double mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation treatment, we hoped to put that struggle behind us and move on. But there was one small problem: a tiny black mole growing in front of my right ear.

In the spring of 2011, I saw a dermatologist, who told me it was melanoma. I wanted to treat my cancer as aggressively as Jodi had, so surgeons removed the mole and nearly 30 lymph nodes. Still, the melanoma kept returning. I faced cycle after cycle of surgery, scan, and relapse. As a software consultant, I only made money when I was working with clients — so on top of the stress of my treatment, money became tight.

Jodi hit the five-year milestone for her breast-cancer diagnosis in early 2012, which meant her long-term chance of survival improved exponentially. We were hopeful, but only briefly. Subsequent tests revealed that her earlier chemotherapy treatment had produced a frightening new disease: acute myeloid leukemia.

That summer, a hard lump began growing under my jaw. My melanoma had returned, and the most optimistic prognosis suggested I had nine to 12 months to live. As Jodi and I each fought our own deadly diseases, our children — 11 and 15 at the time — had to deal with the possibility of losing both parents.

I didn’t have many treatment options, but I found a clinical research study for a personalized cancer treatment at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. Their workup found new tumors in my right lung, which meant my cancer had progressed from stage III to stage IV.

Riding on Hope

Jodi and I started our cancer treatments on the same day in August 2012 — but in different parts of the country. Jodi’s parents, my mom, our siblings, friends, and neighbors, including some people we didn’t even know, stepped in to support our family and care for the kids.

After four weeks of immunotherapy in Bethesda, I was strong enough to return home. One month later, the initial scans showed a one-third reduction of the tumors. By the third month, they were as good as gone. I wouldn’t know until 15 months later that I was among the one in four patients who responded completely to the therapy.

I was able to return to work in early 2013. Jodi, meanwhile, had spent four of the past six months in hospitals near our Eden Prairie, Minn., home. Ultimately, her leukemia caused organ failure, and she died that spring.

I was the lucky one, but I could hardly celebrate. The best way I could honor Jodi’s memory and my survival was to focus on my health and be there for my children. Telling them I had cancer-free scans wasn’t as meaningful as showing them I was living a healthy life.

Before we got sick, Jodi and I used our health-club membership only occasionally, mostly to take the kids to the pool. We suspended our membership after the first diagnosis. In April 2013 I returned to Life Time and started attending cycling classes.

Though I considered myself a recreational cyclist, I’d never ridden indoors. I struggled to ride 15 miles in a one-hour class, but I loved it. After being sick for so long, feeling myself get stronger was thrilling. I kept going back.

A year later, though, my workouts began to slide. My consulting business was back on track, I was the sole caregiver for my kids, and I was nurturing a new relationship. Michelle was a widowed parent of two children, as well. We hit it off immediately and were married in June 2015.

Gearing Up for Health

In February 2016 my doctor suggested increasing my diabetes medication. I have a family history of the disease, and I was diagnosed with type 2 around the same time that tests revealed my melanoma. Obviously, I’d put diabetes on the back burner, but my doctor’s concern made me realize I needed to take action.

I started scheduling personal-training sessions before cycling classes. I decided to book my time at the health club as if I were meeting with clients. My focus was on consistency, showing up three times a week.

On the advice of a friend, I adopted a low-carb, high-fat, ketogenic diet. After six weeks my blood sugar was in the normal range. By July I’d lost 40 pounds, stopped taking insulin, and begun phasing out other medications. Best of all, I felt stronger, more energetic, and more alive.

Early in 2017 my synagogue distributed information about the Israel Ride, which raises money for organizations promoting peace in the region. I had always wanted to go to Israel, and this bicycling pilgrimage appealed to me. Still, the ride would cover almost 400 miles in a week — I’d never ridden that far before.

I began attending cycling classes four times a week and gradually increased my speed. That goal encouraged me to do more outdoor riding, too, and that summer I finished my first 100K ride.

Aside from being a significant personal challenge, this ride was also a way to mark my 50th birthday and the five-year anniversary of my immunotherapy treatment. Training through those two milestones helped me close that chapter and switch my focus from treating my illness to living a healthy life.

I was also setting a positive example for my children. Instead of giving up, I’d taken on a new challenge — one that honored what my stronger body was capable of accomplishing.

I left for Israel on Oct. 24, 2017, and started seven days of cycling with 165 riders from all over the world. We pedaled along the Mediterranean Sea, then south through the desert, finishing along the Egyptian border. The ride ended in Eilat, a resort city located at the southernmost point of Israel, sandwiched between Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

The journey represented how I was moving forward with my life — beyond fear and in control of my health. At the finish, I stepped into the Red Sea with the other cyclists and lifted my bike overhead in victory. At last, I was able to celebrate my survival.


Editor’s note: Bill Heyman is a 1985 Wausau East High School graduate now living in Minnesota. This article first appeared in the June 2018 issue of Experience Life magazine. Reprinted with the permission of Experience Life. Photos courtesy of Bill Heyman.

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