5 life tips from surviving brain cancer
As a recent college graduate, Danny Heinsohn couldn’t wait to get to Europe for a 2½-month backpacking trip with friends. Then fate intervened.
The year was 1999. The day before he was supposed to fly to Europe, Heinsohn, who had battled a severe headache for a week, decided to go to the emergency room with his dad. That led to a brain cancer diagnosis and emergency surgery, beginning a 20-year journey that’s regularly stretched his physical and mental limits.
In the two decades since that fateful ER visit, Heinsohn, 44, has endured five craniotomies; he jokes that he gets five bars of Wi-Fi service in his head. But he also forged a successful career in sports business, launching the sports practice for a company called Access Event Solutions that made backstage passes, and winning the business of the New York Yankees and the Daytona 500.
Heinsohn, a Reno, Nev., resident, has completed two full Ironmans and eight other marathons, and he’s also helped raise more than $250,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society though his foundation, My Hometown Heroes, which he now runs full time.
■ Age: 44
■ Residence: Reno, Nev.
■ Sports industry experience: 13 years at Access Event Solutions, where he helped launch the company’s sports business.
■ Currently: Running his foundation, My Hometown Heroes, which helps provide scholarships to college-bound cancer survivors. Heinsohn also does keynote speaking and sales coaching.
“It fills my heart with gratitude that we’ve been able to help so many people, inspire so many people,” he said.
It wasn’t COVID-19 that interrupted Heinsohn’s trip, but he understands the impact of having your life suddenly derailed and the lessons that brings. He spoke recently with Sports Business Journal and offered up five things to keep in mind when confronting major challenges, including those pandemic-related. They stem from Heinsohn’s personal experience but are universal in their application to confronting uncertain times.
1. Be grateful/express gratitude
One of Heinsohn’s first calls after his brain tumor diagnosis was to a close friend from high school. The friend arrived at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Reno within moments, a touching show of devotion that lifted Heinsohn during a terrifyingly uncertain time.
“When something like this happens and to have people actually show up in the hospital for you, just the act of being there, doesn’t make you feel as lonely through that process. Because traumatic experiences can make you feel like you’re on a deserted island,” said Heinsohn. “I’ve developed this infinite gratitude for people just being there.”
2. Focus on the process
Four days after the diagnosis, pressure built in Heinsohn’s head and caused a massive seizure, effectively scrambling his brain. He woke up from his second craniotomy in four days with no sense of time or hand-eye coordination, and slurred speech. Following five days in intensive care, Heinsohn had to relearn how to walk, talk, tie his shoes … any number of daily activities that are taken for granted by most people.
“I had no choice but to focus on one day at a time, whether it was learning how to walk without assistance or going to the bathroom. I had to truly be present in the moment to get through all of this stuff,” he said. “As tedious and arduous as it was, it was essential to the process.”
3. You need an outlet
Heinsohn took a lot of notes while pursuing an electrical engineering degree in college, so writing things down was second nature to him. Expressing himself was not, though, especially as he erected defensive walls around his emotions during the past two decades to help him cope with fear, depression and anxiety. Now, a newsletter that he writes every third Thursday of the month about life lessons serves as a primary outlet. “Vulnerability is hard for people,” Heinsohn said, but it’s critical in a situation like a pandemic that throws up so many individually challenging scenarios and difficulties.
“I think it’s really important to get things out in the open so that they’re not stirring around your head and turning into something that’s not real,” he said.
4. Establish your routine
Unemployed and undergoing chemotherapy, Heinsohn had to adapt his life and routine. Daily existence suddenly included injecting himself with blood thinners and white blood cells, and taking medication and steroids every six hours for an entire year. Heinsohn began to sprinkle in learning new songs on the guitar and attempts at exercise to fill out his days and settle into a life rhythm while he slowly recovered from his near-death experience. Creating a routine provided Heinsohn some degree of certainty amid the chaos of his personal health.
“Just like going through COVID right now, you just have to adjust to a new normal,” he said.
That routine-making ability helped Heinsohn when he began to train for marathons and triathlons. Mondays were for yoga. He swam first thing in the morning on Tuesday and Thursdays and would run or cycle in the afternoon. Wednesdays were for his bike, Friday his day off. But the weekends were his big days, including 75-mile bike rides and 13-mile runs. He completed his first Ironman in 2010, the 10th anniversary of his brain cancer survival.
5. Don’t get attached to a specific outcome
For almost a year after his initial health scare, Heinsohn held on to the idea of the European backpacking trip. But side effects from the chemotherapy, steroids and accompanying depression and anxiety meant the trip wasn’t conducive to his healing, physically or mentally. In a moment of clarity — understanding what was important to him and why — Heinsohn realized the moment for the Europe trip had passed.
“Being attached to that outcome wasn’t really serving me at that particular junction in my life, so when I let go of that aspiration, opportunities started to present themselves,” he said.
He turned his energy toward improving his overall health, taking a spinning class for the first time. He enjoyed it enough that he eventually became a certified instructor, and it was in Heinsohn’s own spinning class that he met entrepreneur Seth Sheck, who liked his choice of grunge rock and later hired him at AES, helping launch his sports business career.