For cancer survivor, ‘the show must go on’
By Hannah Kohut Correspondent August 12, 2012 9:22PM
Erica Heilmann during a dress rehearsal for the musical "Fame" in the theater at Oak View Community Center in Oak Lawn Tuesday, July 10, 2012. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 14, 2012 6:00AM
In November of 2010, 37-year-old Erica Heilmann, of Oak Lawn, had it all; a loving husband, a fulfilling career, three kids and had just given birth to her fourth child.
Not only was she a full-time theater teacher at Thornton Fractional South High School in Lansing, she also dedicated several hours every week volunteering with the Oak Lawn Park District’s theater program. Needless to say, Heilmann didn’t have much time to deal with anything unexpected.
But that’s exactly what happened.
Only 10 days after giving birth to a healthy baby girl, something didn’t feel right.
She went to the doctor, only to learn the worst — she had cancer in her chest. Not just any cancer, but a rare cancer that hardly had any research to back it.
It was a 9-centimeter mass, and the cancer was thymoma. Heilmann said there has been just one study on 33 people who have that type of cancer.
So what does a woman with a husband, four kids and a career do in such a situation?
More theater, of course.
“The show must go on,” Heilmann said. So, she sought out the M.D. Anderson Medical Center in Houston for treatment. Soon after, she learned M.D. Anderson was partnering with Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn — she was able to get her treatments from world-class doctors right in her own town.
“I was actually one of the first patients to use the affiliation,” Heilmann said. “I went through the whole gamut; in surgery, they cut my chest open in March of 2011 to remove (the mass) and followed up with chemo and radiation for precautions,” Heilmann said.
But chemo and radiation made her feel sick. She also did an aggressive form of treatment that required four-day stays at a time at the hospital.
The only thing on her mind, however, was her children and her theater program at the park district.
“Some people were telling me not to do theater because of the treatments,” Heilmann said. “But my husband, Dave (Oak Lawn’s mayor), was very supportive of it because he knows it’s my passion and an outlet for me; I’m never one to just sit at home all day.”
Heilmann said it was her staff at the park district that kept her going. Even while she was in a hospital bed receiving treatment, she knew every little thing that was going on with the plays she was directing. And as soon as she was out of that bed, you bet she was at rehearsals.
“I’m sure it was hard for them (the theater kids) to see me losing my long hair,” Heilmann said. “They were with me when I ripped off the wig for the first time. They helped me get through this more than they realize.”
Even on nights when she felt lightheaded and dizzy, Heilmann still pressed forward with her productions.
“I was doing the light board one night and was dizzy,” Heilmann said. “I was literally on the floor between shows, but I was the only person who knew the light shows, so they would just carry me back up there and put headphones on me. I told them, ‘don’t look at me, don’t talk to me,’ and I got through the show.”
One of her closest co-workers at the park district, Julie Benos, 40, of Oak Lawn, said she was blown away with Heilmann’s dedication.
“She’s not a quitter,” Benos said. “She gets her mind to something and no matter what’s going on in her personal life, she’s going to do it.”
Benos said Heilmann would call her from her hospital bed several times a day to get an update on production rehearsals.
“I told her I had her back,” Benos said. “She didn’t want to let the kids down because she loves them and theater so much. She is always funny, no matter her sickness. She can always tell a joke.
“I feel blessed to know her and my life has changed for the better,” Benos said. “It was a serious cancer and she just kept going.”
But Heilmann had more than just her theater family to carry her through the tough times; her real family and her friends rallied around her from day one.
“After surgery I couldn’t pick up my (newborn) baby for eight weeks,” Heilmann said. “My mom and mother-in-law were amazing. I had in-laws flying in from out of state for a week at a time. It was complete insanity, but that’s what life is, anyway. Dave and I were both in good spirits to stay positive for the kids.”
Heilmann said her friends and neighbors also came through on a daily basis, picking up her kids from school and helping with homework. She has a 10-year-old, Natalie, a 7-year-old, Joey, a 5-year-old, Michael, and 20-month-old Brooke.
“It was rough with the kids; I was just crazy,” Heilmann said. “They probably thought it was fun because Grandma was over and everyone was coming over every night. They all knew the 911 number, too.”
Heilmann said she has been cancer-free for more than a year now, and is as involved as ever with her theater productions.
“We just finished ‘Legally Blonde’ and ‘Fame’,” Heilmann said.
Her advice to anyone who’s faced with the unthinkable?
“Try to live as much of a ‘normal life.’ It becomes precious and you need to live your life.”