Volunteer Spotlight: Mark and Jennifer Heleniak
Two-Time Cancer Survivor Volunteers to Create Future Survivors
September 17th, 2021 | Rob Kelly
Mark Heleniak is a two-time cancer survivor. In 2011, he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at UW Carbone Cancer Center after having trouble getting a proper diagnosis in Milwaukee, where he lives. During a follow-up at the UW Cancer Center Johnson Creek a year-and-a-half later, his doctor and a visiting endocrinologist observed symptoms that led to a diagnosis of oropharyngeal cancer. The compassionate, expert care he received at the UW Carbone Cancer Center is one of the reasons he and his wife, Jennifer, volunteer for The Ride.
“Volunteering is an emotional thing for us,” Jennifer says. “We are just so honored and blessed by the people at the UW, especially Dr. Randy Kimple (associate professor in the Department of Human Oncology) and Dr. Aaron Wieland (associate professor in the Department of Surgery). Between them and the nurses and front desk staff, it’s like old home week when we volunteer for The Ride.”
This year will be the third time Mark and Jennifer are volunteering. They enjoy interacting with participants while distributing meals and doing their part to support an event that drives research aimed at improving the lives of cancer patients. Mark notes that UW research led to development of the TomoTherapy machine used in his treatment and sees The Ride as a way of funding other UW innovations.
In addition to providing support for The Ride, Mark is participating in a clinical trial for a therapy intended to improve salivary function in patients who have undergone radiation treatment for head and neck cancer.
“Mark was the first patient to sign up for this study,” Jennifer says. “When we went to the radiation oncology clinic for our first visit as part of the study, Dr. Kimple went out of his way to stop by the exam room to show us the proposal he was working on for the next stage of the study. That’s just so cool!”
“UW–Madison is doing some really awesome work to promote the betterment of humanity. They deserve this support. That’s why we volunteer,” Mark says.
During the harsh winter of 2013, Mark and Jennifer traveled daily for eight weeks from Milwaukee to Madison for Mark’s radiation and chemotherapy.
“Jenny was there with me every day. She has her own medical issues to deal with. I’ve got a great appreciation for what the caregiver has to go through. Any caregiver who has to help out a cancer patient deserves real recognition and a round of applause,” Mark says.
“We considered the cancer our cancer because it doesn’t just affect the patient,” Jennifer says.
In addition to eliciting support from loved ones, cancer often motivates others to help as well. For example, during Mark’s treatment, Jennifer tried to arrange psychological counseling for Mark as he struggled with the emotional toll of his disease. Unable to afford counseling, she was clearly upset as she talked on her phone trying to arrange a session. When she hung up, a couple approached her and handed her money to cover the cost.
“The man had had cancer, and they explained that in their time of need people in their community got together and helped them. They were there for a checkup, saw us in distress, and decided to help us out,” Mark says. “Now it’s our turn to help out by supporting The Ride.”
The Ride has powered over $1.3M since 2016 through the support and foundation of its participants. For more information on how to walk, run, bike or volunteer at The Ride, visit badgerchallenge.org.