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Living with lung cancer

Living with lung cancer

By Dennis Thompson

(HealthDay News) -- Richard Heimler, 50, is a six-year survivor of lung cancer living in New York City -- but that makes it sound a lot simpler than it actually is.

Heimler has lived through five different bouts of cancer since 2004, his recent past full of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments, experimental medication and continued hope.

"My philosophy is to stay alive until the next drug comes on the market that will keep me alive until the next drug comes on the market," Heimler said.

He was first diagnosed in April 2004. He was fresh from a business trip to London when he began experiencing chest pains. At the hospital, doctors gave him a battery of tests. An X-ray revealed a shadow on his right lung.

"At the end of the day, the chest pains were completely unrelated to the lung cancer diagnosis," said Heimler, who has never smoked. "I was very lucky. The tumor itself was only 3 centimeters and hadn't spread anywhere but the lung. It wasn't in the lymph nodes or anywhere else."

The cancer had spread to two different sections of the right lung, however, leaving surgeons with no choice but to remove it entirely.

However, the space that the removal left in his rib cage caused problems. Heimler had to discontinue chemotherapy after four months when he began having serious trouble breathing and swallowing. It turned out that his organs were shifting.

Surgeons went back in and filled the cavity with breast implants and shifted his organs back to their proper positions.

Things were good for nearly two years, he said, but in October of 2006, Heimler was diagnosed with a small malignant brain tumor. Analysis revealed that the tumor had probably spread from his earlier lung cancer. He underwent surgery, followed by six months of chemotherapy.

The following June, doctors found a malignant tumor in the right thoracic area, where his lung used to be. It was a very small tumor under the ribs, and it was surgically removed. Doctors didn't try chemotherapy after that one. Instead, Heimler said, he was put on a new targeted-gene-therapy drug.

Six months later, another brain tumor was located in the same place as the first one. Doctors this time killed the tumor with gamma knife radiation therapy, which is pinpoint radiation that precisely targets the cancer cells.

"It was just one morning of radiation," Heimler said. "I left my apartment at 6:30 a.m., and by 9:30 a.m. it was over and I was on my way home. It was really amazing."

Yet another shoe fell in November of 2008, when doctors found multiple new small tumors on his remaining lung, "which was the thing we worried most about," he said. "I've only got one lung left."

Heimler started again on chemotherapy, which he stayed on until June this year. "It kept my tumors in check," he said. "They were stable for those two years. They didn't grow, there weren't new ones, but they didn't shrink, either."

In July, Heimler was able to join a clinical trial for an experimental new drug, crizotinib, which targets a specific gene. The drug had performed well in an earlier trial, and it performed well for him, too, he said.

"When I had my scan done after six weeks, my two biggest tumors had died," Heimler said. "That was really good news because chemotherapy wasn't able to do that. There are other small tumors still there, but my doctors were very happy that the largest tumors had died."

Heimler is still living with cancer, but he says he's feeling better than he has in a long time. "If you saw me right now, I don't think you would think I am a sick person," he said. "My coloring's back, my hair is back, my appetite is back. So right now, things are good."

And despite all he's been through, Heimler refuses to surrender to despair.

"I'm a very positive, upbeat person. I try not to go to dark places and think of worst-case scenarios. I've got two children, and I feel very strongly that I need to stay alive for them and do whatever it takes to remain alive," he said.

"When you hear all this history, it sounds like I've been through a war, but I just take it day by day," he added. "I still have a good quality of life, and I still do nice things. I am living with cancer, but I am living."

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