Zach Heath felt he had everything. A second-year MBA student at the University of Missouri, Heath was athletic and outgoing. He never caught a cold. He had a supportive network of friends and family in Columbia, and he spent his spare time working on a startup that aimed to revolutionize the way cancer was treated. Yet Heath had only an 11 percent chance of being alive to see that happen.
Heath first started feeling sick in October 2015. He was lifting weights and had the strange sensation of something in his stomach being in his way.
The next day, while playing cards with his friends, he experienced intense intestinal cramps every couple of minutes.
He browsed the internet, took pills and slept more to ease the pain, but soon after MU Homecoming in early October, the excruciating cramps came back.
Despite his family urging him to go see a doctor, Heath insisted on postponing the visit for around two weeks because of lack of money. At 29, he had opted out of medical insurance because of its high cost and the low likelihood, he said, of encountering any serious health issues, “like cancer or something.”
Heath’s new medical insurance was set to begin Nov. 1. But he couldn’t hold out until then. As the pain persisted, a doctor who was friends with Heath’s sister warned him he might be septic. Heath ended up in the emergency room on Oct. 26.
“I started losing weight. I couldn’t eat,” he said. “I was tired, and it sucked. In the emergency room, the nurse thought I was going to die. When you have an abdominal complication, that’s an immediate emergency, and I waited, like, three weeks, so they were very concerned that I was septic and that I was having internal bleeding and bad stuff going on. I had very high fever.”
After several CT scans and procedures to drain out an abscess that had formed on his colon, doctors hinted that he might be suffering from ulcerative colitis. Over the next several weeks, he took antibiotics, had another CT scan and spent some time in the hospital.
On Christmas Eve, he got a new diagnosis: stage 4 colon cancer.
I remember it so vividly…or at least I feel like I do. I was sitting in the ER with my mom and sister when the doctors came in, and, matter-of-factly, told me that they were in consensus that I had colon cancer. They wanted to do a colonoscopy to be sure. I’m sorry, what? I just turned 29. That’s not supposed to happen. I eat healthy and workout, what are you talking about lady? Well, that’s how it went in my head. Outwardly, I just smiled and nodded. I don’t think anyone can really be ready to be told that they have cancer. – E.R. Round 2
Heath has always been a fighter, and “cancer” is something he’s heard about from a very young age. His mother, Christine, had endometrial cancer and underwent a hysterectomy at 46. One of his mother’s brothers had colon cancer. Another had esophageal cancer. One of his father’s brothers died of skin cancer. His youngest sister, Natalie, survived leukemia when she was only 5.
Yet Zach never suffered from anything. “He had a steel immune system,” his younger sister Erin said. “And he’s always had the can-do attitude. When he was growing up, he didn’t even have a lot of fear of failure. He was always being confident. Any task or anything, he was approaching it very positively.”
Throughout his life, Heath had been interested in sports and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. He played baseball and swam in high school, and he played baseball in college at Troy University in Alabama. Heath graduated from a degree program focused on cellular and molecular biology, and he began delving into the world of nutrition.
He never found a passion professionally, and he tried multiple jobs. He worked as an insurance agent, medical recruiter, high school physics teacher and IT procurement specialist. Yet he never really viewed the jobs as more than temporary occupations that helped him pay the bills.
Then, in May 2015, while Heath was looking for a summer internship after his first year of the MBA program at MU, he met Dr. Mark Hunter, director of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center in Columbia. Hunter introduced an idea for better treating something that was very familiar to Heath.
The new cancer treatment changed the way doctors performed a specific operation, the hysterectomy, that removes a woman’s uterus and is common in cases of uterine cancer. Hunter envisioned using a small surgical device that penetrated through the vagina. It would be less invasive than other methods and leave no scars, Hunter said, allowing the patient to recover faster. It also represented a business opportunity, and Hunter was looking for help.
Heath immediately jumped on board and was named head of operations.
The night before Thanksgiving. I had a loop ileostomy. They basically pull out your intestines and split your small and large bowel apart so that your small bowel empties into the ostomy bag. It also leaves a hole for them to get into the large bowel through what they call a stoma. A stoma is the portion of your intestines that sticks out of your skin. It’s pretty weird looking. – Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.
Heath scheduled his surgery for March 25, the last day of school before spring break and almost four months after he started chemotherapy. He informed everyone around him that doctors would remove a big portion of his large intestine and reattach the remaining part to the small intestine, and that he would finally be rid of the ostomy bag that had been attached to his body, collecting waste that his intestine couldn’t process anymore.
He reached Mercy Hospital St. Louis before 7 in the morning. He was scared, but mainly because the doctor could have asked him to reschedule everything. They took him to a pre-op room, where an anesthesiologist stuck a little needle in his back.
When Health woke up, he was thirsty and tangled in six tubes that pierced his skin: one for the epidural that was sticking out of his spine; one that went through his nose, down his throat and into his stomach to keep him from vomiting; two drains out of the left side of his abdomen; and the IV. He was heavily bandaged, and had 37 staples and about 15 stitches.
As he fought cancer, Heath began working on business strategy for Hunter’s project. He spent months thinking about how to attract investors and monetize the surgical device, along with another idea that encouraged a ketogenic diet — one based on minimum calories, low carbs and healthy fat — to help cancer patients combat the disease.
Oftentimes, he talked about how it would be “cool” to change the world, and even cooler to be involved with a project like Hunter’s in a full-time capacity. Even going through chemo, when he was visibly weak and tired, Heath would attend meetings to pitch the business idea and solicit feedback.
The five-year survival rate of people diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer is about 11 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. The majority of new startups don’t survive five years, according to Kauffman Foundation data. But Heath never seemed daunted by the odds, personally or professionally.
In interviews, he would describe big ambitions and never stop saying that great ideas can happen, even in the Midwest.
“When you’re on the coast and say you want to change the world, it’s normal. But when you’re from the Midwest and you say you want to change the world, people are like …” he paused. “You know? It’s a different culture.”
I was real damn happy to walk out of that hospital and finally get some fresh air. I held my head out the car window for like 45 minutes after I got in the car. We made it back to Columbia about 8 PM on Tuesday, and I pretty much immediately posted up in the hospital bed that I had waiting for me in the middle of the living room at my new place. All that was left to do was to sit there and heal, while I waited to go back to the doc the following Monday to have my post-op check-up and go over the pathology report. – Post-Op
The first word Heath remembers hearing was “interesting.” He was lying on a chair, the surgeon pulling out Heath’s staples after congratulating him on his fast recovery. It was April 4, just 10 days after his surgery, and all Heath could think of was the results of the tests that would show how much cancer he’d still have to battle. After removing Heath’s stitches, the doctor headed to the computer to go over the pathology report.
An unusually high number of tested lymph nodes, 87, turned out clear. The surgical margins of the removed tissue were also clear. The only place where they found cancer was in the tumor itself, Heath said. Everything else was clear.
“I may have let out the biggest sigh of relief in the history of big sighs of relief,” he wrote on his blog. “I felt like a million pounds had been lifted off of my shoulders.”
The support that I’ve gotten ever since I started this journey has been amazing. I don’t know where I’d be without you guys. I had surgery four weeks and one day ago. I’m recovering pretty quickly. Hopefully I don’t look too sickly. I start chemo again on Monday so I appreciate you guys coming up here and give me one little last ‘Hoorah’ before a little bit of a tough summer. But seven more rounds of chemo and then I think I might be able to declare victory. – Heath to the crowd at the Conquering Cancer Festival, held in his honor on April 23, 2016
From April to July, Heath underwent chemo. He graduated with his MBA in May. Around Thanksgiving, he took a job in Connecticut as a senior analyst for The Resource Group, a company that offers logistics and operations services to health care providers.
During the summer after graduation, Heath set aside his project with Hunter. They couldn’t gather the necessary funds to keep going, and Heath needed a job that offered health insurance. Although Heath and Hunter now live in different parts of the country, they suggested they would consider giving the business idea another try in the future if they found financial backing.
Heath made it a point not to change his good habits once he became healthy again. He still met friends for lunch, started working out again and tried his luck at golf.
“He is a much more positive individual than he has ever been,” his friend Tanner Mills said. “He cherishes relationships, friends and family — everyone that has done everything from him. He is an absolute better person, because it was a learning process — a sh–ty one, but a learning process.”
In Connecticut, people don’t know about Heath’s battle. Sometimes, he has the strange sensation that it never happened and that it was all a bad dream.
When he’s not working, Heath enjoys his new hometown, New Haven. He joined several professional organizations to meet new people, and he signed up for a kickball league. He got a new oncologist at Yale and is more than eager to write a book. Whenever he has the chance, he encourages others to never miss a doctor’s appointment and to get regular check-ups, saying illness shouldn’t mean a long or painful struggle as long as it’s detected and treated on time.
“You have to understand that cancer is a chronic illness, not death sentence,” said Heath’s father, Jerry. “It’s survivable, beatable. Buckle up and fight, and you’ll win.”
Heath’s last round of chemo was July 20, 2016. He arrived at the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center accompanied by his sister, Erin, and his friend and fellow chemo patient, Ryan. Nurses couldn’t stop congratulating Heath and asking him how his life would look after he finished treatment. They gathered around and watched him ring a bell that all cancer patients at the hospital ring at the end of their treatment. The sweet sound that Heath had been waiting to hear for seven months was yet another sign of his new life.
“There have been so many people along this journey that have showed me more support than I could have possibly earned or deserved,” Heath wrote on his blog. “To all of you, the only way I can repay you is to attack this reversal of fortunes with a vengeance and take advantage of this second chance that I am utterly thrilled, and fairly stunned, to be receiving. From this day on, I have a future again. Don’t expect me to take it for granted.”