Against The Odds: One Patient’s Drive To Make A Difference
Never tell J.P. Heiremans he can’t do something unless you want to see him immediately prove you wrong.
“I’ve always been able to adapt,” he says. “It’s something I’ve done my whole life.”
When he says his whole life, he means it. The 52-year-old retired engineer, OHC patient and dedicated volunteer was born with just two fingers on his left hand. He remembers his kindergarten teacher being amazed he could tie his own shoes. He went on to play basketball and football — and even obtain a driver’s license with no restrictions, despite doubts from the Department of Motor Vehicles.
“My inner drive is a big part of who I am,” J.P. says.
But he was about to come face to face with the biggest challenge of his life.
In the fall of 2010, J.P. sought out his primary care physician for what he thought was activity-related back pain. Eventually, after visits to his chiropractor, individual therapy offered minimal relief, and a series of x-rays and CT scans were ordered.
“That’s when they noticed something else,” he explains. “They noticed a spot.” It turned out there were two spots: one on his lung and another on one of his lower ribs, dangerously close to his spinal cord. When biopsies confirmed both spots were cancerous, he was referred to OHC medical oncologist Dr. Cynthia Chua and radiation oncologist Dr. Jennifer Gerson. Dr. Chua immediately started J.P. on a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation. Because of the location of his tumors, surgery wasn’t a safe option.
“The doctors at OHC are very honest,” J.P. says. “They’re open to questions and don’t hide things. They didn’t give me any false hope. So, every upward swing is honestly a good thing, and every good thing makes you feel better.”
For J.P., those good things came quickly. In just a few months, the tumor on his rib was undetectable. The tumor in his lung also shrank significantly, down to just 20 percent of what it was before his treatment plan began.
But before he knew it, the man who couldn’t be stopped was dealt another blow.
In 2013, a persistent headache led to an MRI, which showed two more tumors. This time, the tumors were in his brain. J.P. immediately began to think about his family.
“Cancer is very difficult on the patient, but it’s actually much harder on the people who love you – the ones who are going to lose you. They, in some ways, have a lot more to lose than you do,” J.P. says. He wasn’t ready to leave behind his wife of 31 years, Kimberly; or their children, 26-year-old daughter Caylee and her husband Morgan; 24-year-old son Greg; and 20-year-old son Maxwell.
“I’m going some place better. But they have to stay and deal with it. I decided I was going to make it easier for them. Even when I’m not feeling great, even if I’m not feeling happy, even if I’m feeling a little depressed, I am going to try to keep a more positive outlook just for them.”
OHC’s cancer team identified J.P. as an ideal candidate for a leading-edge procedure known as Gamma Knife, a non-invasive radiosurgery procedure specifically designed for malignant and benign brain tumors. OHC radiation oncologist, Dr. David Pratt, treated J.P., along with a highly trained multi-disciplinary medical team.
Three to four weeks after the Gamma Knife procedure, the tumors had reduced in size. He was doing so well, just a few months later, he and his family took a vacation to the Grand Canyon. J.P. even hiked to the bottom and back up.
“I am going to be the guy who does the normal stuff and even pushes myself some,” he says. “I am going to be a cancer survivor.”
Following the Gamma Knife procedure, Dr. Chua informed J.P. about a promising clinical trial for lung cancer offered at OHC through its clinical research program. After a thorough medical evaluation, J.P. was eligible for enrollment and soon began receiving the trial drug Nivolumab. He remains on it today and says it’s helping him get the most out of his life.
The experience at OHC inspired him to become a volunteer at the office several times a week. “I realized maybe this is something I can do that will make a difference in someone else’s life,” he says. J.P. spends time with other patients: listening to them, comforting them when he can and sharing parts of his own experience along the way.
“When I see someone smile, I feel like I become part of the healing process,” says J.P. “I don’t know how you cannot benefit from that. You’re becoming part of something that is really great.”
He also loves volunteering because it gives him a chance to interact with the nurses at OHC, who he says made a lasting impression on him during the most difficult days of his treatment.
“For the nurses here, this isn’t just their profession; this is their life,” J.P. explains. “You can see that all the time. They are all so positive. They are so instrumental in keeping your attitude positive, too.”
He says many of the nurses and doctors at OHC have become his friends, in particular Dr. Chua, who encouraged him to participate in the clinical trial. You can catch him around the office, delivering his homemade brownies and even challenging the staff to push-up competitions, for which he is famous. “This is the job I always wished I had,” he laughs.
He’s making the best out of the situation and doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon. In fact, after hearing his story — the life-long obstacles he’s faced, his diet regimen, his dedication to fitness and his outlook on life — you’d swear J.P.’s entire life has been spent preparing for this journey.
For him, cancer is just another challenge he has to tackle. “I have cancer. I can’t change that. But it doesn’t mean I can’t keep living.”
J.P. is proving again that nothing — not even cancer — can get in the way of something he wants to do.