Volunteering at Pan-Mass Challenge Means Family and Fun for Stomach Cancer Survivor

Saul Heller has been a professional singer and a cantor, a grocer, travel agent, and even an activist blogger. These days, however, the 88-year-old grandfather is especially proud of two new roles: stomach cancer survivor and Pan-Mass Challenge (PMC) volunteer.

Each August for 12 years – missing only the summer after his January 2014 surgery – Heller has been on “food duty” at the Bourne stop of the PMC, refueling cyclists who are biking up to 192 miles across the Commonwealth to support patient care and research at Dana-Farber. He enjoys donating his time, he says, because it provides an opportunity to both repay the cancer center that saved his life and to greet and thank his nephews, nieces, son-in-law, grandson, and other relatives who ride for the Heller’s Wheels PMC team.

Heller shares a big hug on the PMC bridge at Dana-Farber with his daughter and wife.

“It was always a meaningful experience to volunteer at the PMC, and since my diagnosis I can identify more with what everyone is going through and the importance of this event,” says Heller, who expects to be handing out pizza as one of 4,000 volunteers working the 38th annual PMC on Aug. 5-6. “I know how lucky all of us with cancer are to have the skills, experience, intelligence, and genuine caring of everyone involved in trying to give us a second chance to live our lives in happiness.”

Elderly individuals with stomach cancer were once not considered strong candidates for surgery, says Heller’s surgeon, Jiping Wang, MD, PhD. Wang credits funds raised in part by the PMC for the better understanding of this patient population, which has developed through research and clinical trials and allowed Heller to make a full recovery.

Heller and his oncologist James Cleary and surgeon Jiping Wang.

“The frailty of elderly cancer patients due to their chronological age, comorbidities, high perioperative morbidity, mortality, and the uncertain outcome of surgery all served as potential biases against operating on them,” says Wang, Wang worked closely with Heller’s oncologist, James Cleary, MD, PhD, and other caregivers before and after surgery. “But with the increased number of elderly oncology patients, I think that we should re-assess our treatment strategy. My recent studies indicated that for fit elderly patients, those who received surgery had significantly better survival than those who did not – and the development of minimal invasive surgery has considerably decreased the risks.”

Although he’s never ridden in the PMC himself, Heller was working out several times a week well into his 80s. It was during a cruise four years ago with his wife of nearly 63 years, Betty, that he grew so tired he couldn’t even lift his gym bag, and started the process that led to his diagnosis. Now, after surgery and extensive physical therapy, he’s back to exercising and feeling great.

During a recent meeting with Wang and Cleary, Heller praised his entire care team. “I’m a walking, living example of their magic,” he said with a smile. “Dr. Wang said he was going to construct a whole new plumbing system for me, and he did it. I had total confidence in everyone I came in contact with at Dana-Farber.”

Heller’s family and friends — including his grandson Alex Shoer — formed the Heller’s Wheels PMC team.

It’s due to the help of others, Heller points out, that he can assist PMC cyclists who in turn assist patients like him. Last year 6,200 riders from more than 40 states and seven countries helped raise $47 million for Dana-Farber; this year, a similarly-sized group will aim to bring in $48 million. Since 1980, the PMC has accounted for more than a half billion dollars for Dana-Farber.

In years past, Heller’s grandson, Alex Shoer, has been among those taking one of 12 different one- or two-day PMC routes from Sturbridge to Provincetown as a part of Heller’s on Wheels. This time, however, the seven-time rider will be a volunteer alongside his beloved “Zaide” (the Yiddish term for grandfather) in Bourne.

Shoer says Heller has inspired the entire team through his recovery and everyday zest for life.

“It just further proves that his ‘PMA’, or Positive Mental Attitude, works,” says Shoer of his grandfather. “It clearly helped him heal more quickly, it brought joy to the doctors and staff who took care of him, and is a big part of what’s rebuilt his strength. Zaide was actually looking forward to chemo and surgery because it meant he would be healed faster and back at the YMCA working out.”

Asked what he likes best about his grandfather, Shoer mentions “his ability make anyone he meets feel loved, and that includes a big wet kiss.” When Shoer and Heller greet the Hellers on Wheels riders at Bourne on Aug. 5, kisses will no doubt be served up along with the pizza.