In September of 2020, Andrew Heilman was diagnosed with stage four cancer of the gums. He endured surgeries to remove many teeth, as well as chemotherapy and radiation. In May, he needed surgery again.
But things were different the second time around.
Heilman, who admits that it's tough for a lot of guys — including himself — "to admit that you need help," found his way to an online community called Man Up to Cancer. It made all the difference.
"A lot of it is the macho-type thinking" men do, said Heilman, 36, of Isanti. "We are naturally supposed to be the ones to handle everything, to take care of everything. It's not easy to be vulnerable."
The guy-focused community (manuptocancer.com) was founded by Trevor Maxwell, a stage 4 colorectal cancer survivor from Cape Elizabeth, Maine. It offers a website, podcast, social media posts and a Facebook group of more than 1,300 men, known informally as the Wolf Pack.
"I discovered Man Up to Cancer when I was probably at the lowest point of my journey," Heilman said. "I felt so alone and scared for my family, but I knew I had to keep fighting. Then I found the Wolf Pack and realized I wasn't alone — there were so many guys out there fighting the same physical and mental battle I was, and we can help each other get through."
In November, Heilman began a one-year volunteer term as a Wolf Pack leader, promoting the group's mission along with fellow Minnesotan Ben Yokel and 16 other men around the country.
Heilman plans to visit cancer centers to drop off the group's materials and reach out directly to men facing cancer to answer questions and assure them "that I'm here and I've been through it and I understand what they're going through.
"The main thing is to let guys know they're not alone," said Heilman, who sells industrial machinery. He's been cancer-free for about seven months and will begin reconstructive surgery soon.
Yokel, of Duluth, has been living with advanced colorectal cancer since December 2014. When he got the diagnosis, he said, "my world was torn apart.
"It was too cold to go outside, I was uncomfortable driving. It was a lonely journey," said Yokel, 60, a retired dermatologist. He found a few online communities, but they tended to be treatment-focused, he said, "and not so much about the emotional aspects. Men, in general, we are just not good at sharing what we're feeling and then, at 2 in the morning, everything comes crashing down."
The father of three grown children and grandfather of three, Yokel was a charter member of Man Up. He now has friends around the world, including in Australia and Europe. "Someone is always online," he joked.
He considers himself "one of the lucky ones," who after surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, is now cancer-free. As a pack leader, he's eager to offer men new to the cancer fight "any resources that will help them get through the diagnosis or just someone to call when things are stressful."
Maxwell, 44 and a freelance journalist, was diagnosed in 2018 and created Man Up to Cancer in January of 2020. He confessed that, "like a lot of guys, I had not seen a primary care doctor, no checkup, for years."
When he became alarmingly anemic, his doctor sent him to get a colonoscopy, where the cancer was revealed.
Maxwell points to studies that show men are more likely than women to isolate when facing cancer, and are more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety and other mental health problems during treatment and beyond.
The community was his "call to action, really," said Maxwell, married and the father of two teenagers. "I started it because I went through my own struggle with anxiety and depression and, as I started to dig out of that hole and started getting into online support groups, it was glaring how dominated they were by women.
"Sometimes, the woman would come on and say, 'My husband has stage 4 cancer and has his head in the sand.' Men just aren't comfortable seeking help and that's a real problem because anyone who tries to take on cancer on their own can face a lot of negative consequences."
The mission of Man Up to Cancer, he said, is to encourage men to be strong enough to accept help.
"We're trying to flip the script on what 'manning up' means," Maxwell said. "These men are stepping up as role models."