Benjamin Heller: Cancer diagnosis throws outstanding student a curveball

June 8, 2017
Photo courtesy of Benjamin Heller

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.”

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