Photo courtesy of Benjamin Heller

Benjamin Heller: Cancer diagnosis throws outstanding student a curveball

AGE: 17
HIGH SCHOOL: Beverly Hills High School
GOING TO: Stanford University

Benjamin Heller had surgery in March to remove a sarcoma growth on his lungs. He’d been diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, during his sophomore year at Beverly Hills High School, and already had undergone a year of grueling chemotherapy, plus surgery to remove the tumor from his left femur and hip socket. Yet despite the reoccurrence of his cancer in March, and the subsequent surgery on a Monday, Heller vowed to participate in his high school’s robotics competition that weekend.

He stopped taking the powerful drug hydrocodone for his pain that Thursday so he could adequately drive the robot — which piloted a gear that had to be placed accurately onto a peg. The doctors had “literally told me, ‘Don’t drive when you take this medication,’ ” Heller, soft-spoken yet droll, said during a recent interview in the Beverly Hills apartment he shares with his single mother, Michelle Heller, a real estate agent.

“It was rough,” Heller said of completing the competition.

But it wasn’t the first time he had battled his disease to continue his school endeavors. He persevered throughout the surgery to remove his initial tumor, when half his femur was replaced with titanium in March 2015. While depending on crutches and learning to walk again during his sophomore year, he managed to complete advanced placement courses in subjects such as chemistry and European history, as well as five online advanced math classes offered by Stanford University. All the while, he continued serving as co-president and head of the programming section of his school’s robotics club.

He enjoyed his online Stanford courses in differential and integral multivariable calculus. “It seems appropriate that, as I was going through cancer treatment (which offers multiple, stark, different outcomes, and no guarantee of any), I engulfed myself in studies that offered answers of a definitive nature,” Heller wrote of math in his Stanford admissions essay.

Heller — who attended Hebrew school and became a bar mitzvah at Temple Isaiah — recalled how he first felt a dull pain in his left thigh during a Spanish class at the end of his freshman year. His doctor at the time initially dismissed his symptoms as a strained muscle, Heller said. He previously had participated in sports such as baseball and cross country. But after an X-ray five months later, the doctors pulled his mother aside. “When she came back, she looked distressed,” Heller recalled. “She was like, ‘It’s bad,’ but she didn’t want to tell me what it was. So I got nervous.”

When the doctor arrived, he confirmed Heller’s worst fears: He had cancer. “He was shaking and he had tears and he was scared,” his mother recalled.

After surgery to remove the malignant section of his femur, chemotherapy helped to reduce Heller’s pain. The treatment was three weeks on, then three weeks off, but the chemo sometimes was delayed because of problems with Heller’s immune system. An anti-nausea drug made “my eyes roll up and I couldn’t really control them,” he said.

These days, Heller undergoes cancer scans every three months; the last scan some weeks ago showed that no tumors were detectable in his body. “My current status is remission … but that does not constitute evidence that there isn’t other cancer,” he said.

That uncertainty, in part, led Heller to switch his academic focus from math to computer programming, which has less definitive outcomes than math. “Programming comes closer to how the real world works,” he wrote in his essay. “My future could hold anything. … Life itself is more uncertain than not, and at some point, we all have to venture into the unknown.”

Remembering Shiri

I never thought my life would change during my freshmen year. I was in study hall when this tiny, skinny girl came in, pushed in a wheelchair. She hopped out of the chair and sat at the desk right next to mine.

“Hi, my name is Fred; what’s your name?” I introduced myself with a smile. I always try to be friendly.

“My name is Shiri; nice to meet you Fred.” She had a kooky high voice, and pretty eyes with a mixture of green and gray. We started talking, and within minutes we had plans to see a movie.

Before the movie, Shiri told me everything about her life. She had osteosarcoma, which is bone cancer. She had been sick since she was 11. Not only that, her mother had died of a heart attack not long after her diagnosis. While she was talking, I was speechless. I told her I was really sorry, and if she ever needed anything, I would be there. She thanked me.

I started wheeling her between classes, and soon we became best friends. Many people told me I was doing a great thing in being friends with Shiri, and I always told them that it wasn’t community service, and even if it was, she should be getting the hours for tolerating my lame jokes.

Later that fall, when Shiri was hospitalized for chemotherapy, I visited her frequently. She spent most of December in the hospital. I spent every holiday with her, including Chanukah. Each holiday we would stay up, exchange presents, watch TV and take photos.

She soon came out of the hospital, but she wasn’t well. The tumor in her knee was shrunken, but the tumors in her lungs and pelvis were growing. Her family didn’t tell her about the growing tumors because they didn’t want her to worry.

The hospital also found out that there were 12 tumors in her lungs. It was harder to have hope, but I always thought that the new medicine might help.

Soon Shiri seemed to get worse. Sometimes she was really hazy from the medication, and didn’t know who everyone was. The most conversation she could manage was “Hi.” Heartbreaking isn’t even a word to describe how painful it was to see my best friend like this.

One day last August the doctor said that she only had 48 hours left. The next morning I was told that Shiri had died during the night. I didn’t believe it. I walked back home, and when I got home I couldn’t stop crying. The thing that was so devastating was that I never got to say goodbye to her.

Within a week, the funeral was held at Forest Lawn in Glendale. As I looked at the photos of Shiri set up near the podium and listened to the slow, peaceful sounds of the harp player nearby, it suddenly hit me that Shiri wasn’t here anymore. I felt really empty, like I was dead too.

After we all were seated, the rabbi went up to the podium and said, “Our first speaker will be Fred Scarf.”

When I approached the podium, I looked out at the sad people dressed in black.

Some were actually sobbing. It was hard to explain how I was feeling, but I knew I didn’t ever want to feel this way again. I knew I had to do something.

In honor of Shiri, I have started the Shiri Foundation, which is dedicated to raising money and awareness to support research for the cancer that killed her. Osteosarcoma is a rare disease, affecting fewer than 1,000 children per year.

Because it receives very little funding, it is known as an “orphan disease.”
I have never shied away from a challenge and never faced one more important. The Shiri Foundation is a nonprofit that demonstrates a drive and ambition to find a cure for osteosarcoma. Our goal is to raise $60,000 before Dec. 1, 2007.

We recently started selling shirts that say “I’m fighting bone cancer by wearing this shirt.” One hundred percent of the proceeds from donations and T-shirts goes directly to research to find a cure for osteosarcoma. We have sold and given away more than 1,000 T-shirts across the nation and high schools throughout Southern California have requested donation boxes for the Shiri Foundation. The foundation also has a MySpace account to educate youth and provide a forum for discussion.

The Foundation and its mission are my passion. Words could never describe the pain that Shiri and her loved ones suffered. My dream is to prevent others from suffering that kind of pain.

Frederick Scarf is a junior at Birmingham Senior High School in Lake Balboa. You can visit The Shiri Foundation at; the myspace page can be found at