Richard Heimler, 55, is an 11-year survivor of lung cancer and the father of two children: Michael, 27, and Rachel, 25. Rachel lives in New York City and is a first-grade schoolteacher at P.S 151. He shares his story, about overcoming a terminal disease and how theatre dates with his daughter changed his outlook on life, exclusively with Playbill.com.
I am currently celebrating my 11th year since being diagnosed with lung cancer. Approximately 1.6 million people have died of this disease since I was diagnosed. As a rare lung cancer survivor, my life has changed dramatically since being diagnosed at age 44 when my children were 14 and 16 years old. But one thing has not changed, and that is the joy of going to the theatre with my daughter, Rachel.
I know many people celebrate the day their doctor said they were "cancer free." I choose to acknowledge the day I was diagnosed because it is the day that changed my life forever. As I continue to live with cancer, I continue to live a full life. I have lots of plans and hopefully nothing will interfere with them. I want to live my life like everyone else. But, I do believe "that my life will be less long," as the late Elizabeth Edwards said. Cancer has just made me pedal faster. I have had ten recurrences, including the removal of my entire right lung, three tumors in the brain, one tumor in my chest, numerous tumors on my left lung and a tumor near my pleura. Now, at the age of 55, I call my life the "new normal." When the "cancer thing" is very difficult, I focus on special memories from what has been 11 really wonderful years, including my love of going to a Broadway show with Rachel.
Our typical date begins with lunch in the theatre district, and if we have some time, a little shopping in Times Square. When my daughter was younger, I would surprise her with which show we were attending. We would walk down 45th or 46th Street, and I would say, "Would you like to see this show?" And, of course, Rachel would say "yes." I would pull two tickets out of my pocket, and in we would go. Now that she is older, we discuss which shows we would like to see.
I have lost count of how many shows we have seen since I was diagnosed with lung cancer, but it is definitely more than 25. One tradition we have is to take a photo in front of the marque of the theatre we are attending. As I review some of these photos, they bring back memories of my cancer journey. There are some photos where I can see my hair loss due to chemotherapy, weight loss due to a treatment, or a reminder there was an upcoming surgery within a few days.
There are also some photos showing me healthy when I was in remission, and — best of all — the photos show us creating a new memory together, no matter how I was feeling. Rachel told me recently, "It was comforting to me that during the unpredictable times when you had health issues, we were still able to have our Broadway dates and do something special."
There is nothing better for my mental health than when we are sitting in our theatre seats, the lights dim, the overture begins, and I pass a Twizzler or two to my daughter. All my worries, concerns and anxieties disappear for the next few hours as we watch Sutton Foster tap dancing in Anything Goes, Patti LuPone belting "Everything's Coming Up Roses" in Gypsy or Bette Midler on stage in I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers.
Last year for the 10th anniversary of my diagnosis, I produced a video entitled "Richard's Rays of Hope." I asked family members to each create a painting over one of my lung x-rays. I called the project "Turning a Negative into a Positive." Rachel painted a Playbill cover of Superman with a "D" (for Dad) in the middle of his chest. It was a wonderful feeling to see that our Broadway dates had such a positive impact on her and our relationship.
I do not know what my future will bring with this relentless and terrible disease, but I know I have created a lifetime of memories with my daughter. I have saved every Playbill from every show I have seen since I was a young child. I now have over 360 Playbills in binders. When I die, I will give my Playbill collection to my daughter. I will be happy to know she will cherish them because she feels the same way I do about our Broadway bonding.
I was so happy when Rachel told me, "Your love of theatre has inspired me to appreciate theatre so much more; and I have started my own Playbill collection because each Playbill tells a little story of our special days at the theatre." When you have a diagnosis of cancer, you think about your mortality — but I will not let cancer change my positive spirit. Cancer came into my life, and I could not stop it. However, there are things cancer has not done, such as missing my Broadway theatre dates with Rachel.
So for now, I am alive, my tumors are stable, and Rachel and I am looking forward to seeing Kristin Chenoweth and Peter Gallagher in On the Twentieth Century at the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street.
Life goes on…
(Richard Heimler lives in Stamford, CT, with his fiancé, Christopher Maroc. Richard retired for health reasons and volunteers as a dedicated advocate for others affected by lung cancer and for funding for lung cancer research. He is a board member for Lung Cancer Alliance in Washington D.C. His video to raise awareness and hope for anyone touched by lung cancer can be viewed here.)