Andrew Heilman

Andrew Heilman pictured left, after completing Rugged Maniac. Photo submitted

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An Isanti man survived cancer and has become a Wolfpack leader after joining Man Up to Cancer. Man Up to Cancer is an online community that inspires men to avoid isolation when facing a cancer diagnosis.

“Manning up to cancer does not mean you just suck it up and deal with it yourself. It means being man enough to not only accept help but to rely on other men, because no one is strong enough alone,” Andrew Heilman said.

On Sept. 11, 2020, Andrew Heilman was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the mucosa at 35 years old.

“I was crushed. I was scared for my family. I was scared for my parents, especially my mom, because my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the previous spring; it was a lot,” Heilman said.

Not only was the diagnosis difficult to hear, Heilman had a great deal of treatment to prepare for. On Oct. 13, 2020, Heilman had his first surgery where six teeth, gum tissue and some bone was removed. He also had a skin graft taken from his thigh to his mouth. In addition, he went through a bilateral radical neck dissection where 53 lymph nodes were removed. Five of those were cancerous.

“The entire experience was a torment beyond measure both physically and mentally. Wanting to engage with my family and not being able to, being in constant pain and fatigue along with being self-conscious about my outward appearance,” Heilman said.

Just months before Heilman was diagnosed, he discovered his dad was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in March 2020, right as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. He traveled three hours from home over the summer to spend time with his parents and help them prepare to sell their home.

From November 2020 through January 2021, Heilman underwent three rounds of chemotherapy treatment and radiation five days a week for seven weeks. May 4, 2021, Heilman had another surgery to remove a second primary tumor.

Heilman had a great deal of support from friends, family and his church.

“My family and friends really stepped up with donations to help while I was out of work. Close friends that I consider family set up a meal train and a calendar to schedule me rides to radiation. Our church family at Access Church was there day or night,” Heilman said.

Heilman was experiencing the worst of his treatment between December 2020 and January 2021.

“My body is put through the most terrible thing I hope I ever have to endure. If the nausea, weakness and genuinely feeling like crap from chemo isn’t enough, the radiation burned my neck and jaw as well as created sores inside of my mouth and destroyed my saliva glands,” Heilman said.

While he was experiencing what felt like the worst, Heilman’s parents moved in. How does one keep fighting during a time like this?

“I looked at my wife and children and knew I had to do everything in my power to make it through cancer for them. My strength came from God, but they were my reason to keep fighting,” Heilman said.

On Feb. 5, Heilman’s father completed his journey with cancer and was surrounded by his wife, sister and Heilman.

Heilman kept moving forward. On April 7, 2021, Heilman was told he was in remission, but biopsies were taken and showed he had a primary tumor on the left side of his mouth.

Heilman’s surgery in May 2021 proved to be very difficult. He had surgery to remove the cancer and five more teeth.

“A strip of flesh cut from my shoulder and weaved up through my neck into my mouth to replace lost tissue. May 12, still in the hospital and I go back to the OR, to get my neck opened back up to remove a hematoma and clean up infection. May 14, infection is found in my shoulder, and I had two options: OR and add to my hospital stay, or let them pop the staples and stitches and irrigate my shoulder bedside. I chose bedside,” Heilman said.

Finally on May 17, Heilman was discharged and spent weeks healing until his debulking operation on July 7. Heilman had another debulking operation before he could prepare to replace his teeth.

Many cannot imagine what kind of experience this was for Heilman, but there are others that go through similar situations. Heilman had joined a support group on Facebook when he received an invite from Joe Bullock, the lead admin of Man Up to Cancer, a different support group. This is when Heilman met all sorts of men in different stages of their journeys who understood exactly what he was going through.

“Cancer can be very lonely. Some have a tough time seeing someone they care about so sick. Sometimes I would ‘hide’ from even my family because it was hard enough for them to deal with the situation let alone seeing me struggle,” Heilman said. “Unless you have had cancer, it is really hard to understand the physical and emotional toll it takes, and in the Wolfpack I found a group of guys from all walks of life that get the particular set of issues cancer brings.”

Heilman said doing their best to be vulnerable and sharing their stories as well as their victories and defeats was something the group did to make sure no one felt alone.

“I discovered Man Up to Cancer when I was probably at the lowest point of my journey,” Heilman said. “I felt so alone and scared for my family, but I knew I had to keep fighting. Then I found the Wolfpack and realized I wasn’t alone. There were so many guys out there fighting the same physical and mental battle I was, and we can help each other get through.”

Heilman was invited to be a leader of the Wolfpack after the founder of Man Up to Cancer, Trevor Maxwell, reached out. The Wolfpack Leaders will connect with local cancer centers and will provide direct support to fellow cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers facing all types of cancer. Man Up to Cancer is comprised of a website, podcast, social media, and a Facebook group of more than 1,300 men, known informally as the Wolfpack.

“I had been trying to be a presence on The Howling Place to help others in their journey, so when Trevor Maxwell reached out, I asked him if I was what he was looking for, and he was excited that I was willing to come on board,” Heilman said.

For the next year, Heilman and 17 other members will help expand Man Up to Cancer’s reach throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Heilman is now seven months cancer free and plans to get his teeth replaced in the coming months. Men helping other men during a time like this can be crucial; Heilman has a message he’d like to send to others.

“The main message I have for men with cancer is: You are not alone, and it is easier to face the horrors of cancer as a pack,” Heilman said.

This experience has brought Heilman closer to his faith and he wants to show others the truth of cancer.

“I thank God my journey hasn’t been as bad as a lot of others I’ve seen, but without my faith, I wouldn’t be here,” Heilman said. “I’ve tried to show my strength through my faith as well as my weakness. I don’t want to put on the facade that I have Jesus so I am always OK. I fall, and I fall a lot. There are people God has put in my life to help pick me up, and it has been my prayer since my journey started that I will be able to use this situation to help others, whether it’s to prove to people tobacco can and will cause cancer or just to help others going through the same s---.”

Heilman grew up in Pine City and now resides in Isanti with his wife of 12 years and their children Henry, 9 and Katelyn, 3.

Man Up to Cancer founder

Trevor Maxwell, a stage 4 colorectal cancer survivor from Cape Elizabeth, Maine, founded Man Up to Cancer in January 2020. Studies show men are more likely than women to isolate when facing cancer and are more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges during treatment and survivorship, Maxwell said.

“The core of Man Up to Cancer is about being strong enough to accept help. We’re trying to flip the script on what ‘manning up’ means,” Maxwell said. “That’s why the Wolfpack Leaders program has such great potential. These men represent all regions of the U.S. and Canada, and they’re stepping up as role models.”

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