The ultimate warrior
In the summer of 2014, Joe Heiden was driving with his daughter Sophia when the song "Pompeii" by the indie-pop band Bastille came on the radio.
True to its namesake, the song was inspired by the ancient Roman city that was buried in ash following a volcanic eruption. As Heiden recalled, Sophia was confused by one particular lyric.
"How am I gonna be an optimist about this?" vocalist Dan Smith sang. "How am I gonna be an optimist about this?"
"My daughter said, 'That's kind of strange,'" Heiden recalled. "I said, 'No, it's not. No matter what happens in life, you can choose to be optimistic and you can find some positives. Sometimes you just have to look really hard.'"
Four months later, Joe Heiden was diagnosed with stage three pancreatic cancer.
He could see the hopelessness in the doctors' eyes when the diagnosis came in, and he was told that he had about three months to live. Suddenly that lifelong sense of optimism was facing its biggest challenge yet.
Flash forward nearly two-and-a-half years, though, and Heiden, 46, is as alive as he's ever been. So alive, in fact, that he is getting ready to compete on NBC's hit competition show "American Ninja Warrior." After doctors told him that he was unlikely to crack 150 pounds for the rest of his life, the West Linn resident is up to 162 pounds and hopes to use his lithe frame to navigate the complex obstacle course that has made the show famous.
The cancer may not be gone — it returned in October 2016 — but nothing could stop Heiden from competing.
"My kids go to a school (Three Rivers Charter School) where the philosophy is, 'Your life is what you make it,'" Heiden said. "The best way I can help them learn that is by example. Another reason I'm doing it is to inspire others who are afflicted with cancer or whatever adversity they may have in their life.
"There's just way too much fear in the world right now, and I'm going to try to spread a little hope."
Conquering the first battle
Heiden never accepted the three-month prognosis some doctors gave him.
He'd always been good at solving problems, and viewed cancer as just an obstacle to overcome in life.
"I looked at it very objectively, and went and found the doctors who had the most hope," Heiden said.
Those doctors were at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), and the first treatment they recommended was called "immunization therapy."
"They injected me with cells from mice, as well as pancreatic cancer cells that had been hit with radiation, so my body would be able to recognize the cancer and fight it," Heiden said. "It was very painful, but I went through that and then I went through chemotherapy."
The tumor responded to that early treatment, and as it began to shrink Heiden received radiation treatment as well as more chemotherapy.
After that, the big question was whether Heiden was a candidate for surgery to remove the tumor. He pushed hard for the surgery, and finally went under the knife in May of 2015.
"They took out 80 percent of my pancreas and all of my spleen," Heiden said. "Once I recovered, I went through six more months of chemo and by the end of that, I weighed about 135 pounds."
He felt, as he put it, "like I was a 90-year-old man," but following the surgery doctors also declared him cancer-free.
"They said I was like the miracle patient that beat pancreatic cancer," Heiden said.
A new challenge
Heiden — a lifelong runner, tennis player, golfer and hiker — refused to accept the idea that he would never again break 150 pounds, and so in the aftermath of his treatment much of his energy was devoted to lifting weights and regaining his muscle
In January 2016, Heiden decided his next goal was to make it onto "American Ninja Warrior."
"About four or five years ago, I happened to be watching it," Heiden said. "I have four daughters who typically don't like to watch sports with me — other than women's soccer, which we love. And it was the show when Kacy Catanzaro — a little 100-pound woman — hit the buzzer (upon completing the course).
"And my girls were off the couch cheering like I had never seen before. We've watched ever since then."
He began training with a man named Will Hatcher — or as Heiden calls him, "The Ninja Sensei" — in March 2016, and the process was like nothing he'd ever experienced.
"I was an endurance athlete. I had to learn how to become a power athlete," Heiden said. "It's a completely different way of working out — that's why I hired a trainer to work at building muscle, as much as I could and as fast as I could."
On Sept. 11, 2016, Heiden put his strength to the test when he summited Mount Adams in Washington, thereby accomplishing a goal he'd set when he moved to Oregon 11 years prior.
The very next day, however, a quarterly CT scan showed that the cancer had returned — this time in Heiden's lungs. On Oct. 26, surgeons removed a segment of Heiden's lung and he was forced to take about six weeks off from training.
The application for "American Ninja Warrior" was due Jan. 2, and Heiden recovered just in time to complete the video he needed to submit to the show.
In early February, he found out he'd been accepted.
"The Los Angeles qualifier is March 7," he said. "If I make the top 30, I compete on March 8 in the L.A. city finals. If I make the top 15, I go on to (Las) Vegas to compete to try to climb Mount Midoriyama."
Mount Midoriyama is not an actual mountain, but rather the final obstacle course for "American Ninja Warrior" competitors. The prize for the top finisher is $1 million.
"There's NFL football players who have tried it, there's gymnasts, there's Olympic gold medalists," Heiden said. "There's all kinds of people that have attempted it, and only (two people have) ever made it all the way to climb Mount Midoriyama."
The show is set to air in June. While there is no guarantee that Heiden will be on it, he's confident that he will appear. Meanwhile, Heiden is working with a naturopathic doctor in the hopes of avoiding another run through chemotherapy.
"I beat it once," he said. "I'm going to beat it again."
With all eyes on the competition next week, Heiden is looking forward to the pressure.
"I always wondered what it would be like to be that NFL football player that's got to kick that field goal to win the game in the last second, or the basketball player or whatever — to feel that pressure," Heiden said. "I can't wait to see what that feels like. It's going to be really cool."