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June 3, 2024

Alan Herman: ICRF Executive Director and Cancer Survivor

National Cancer Survivor Month Feature Story

A Word and a Moment That Changed Everything 

Life was on track for New York native Alan Herman. With a loving wife, baby on the way, and a thriving business, everything was going right for Alan, and his life was exactly where he wanted it to be – until it wasn’t.

One word changed the course of his life to an unknown direction, during a time that was supposed to be joyful. “When I heard one of the technicians say ‘malignant,’ it reverberated in my head. With my pregnant wife beside me, I kept thinking about her and how she lost her dad to cancer as a child and here she was pregnant…my biggest fear was that I did not want history to repeat itself for my wife.”

Alan was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC), a rare cancer that develops in glandular tissues in most areas of the body and travels along nerve endings, most often to the lungs. ACC occurs most frequently in the head and neck. For Alan, this was the case as the cancer originated in his salivary glands. Less than 1,000 people per year in the U.S. are diagnosed with ACC, and it accounts for ten percent of all salivary gland tumors, which grow slowly compared with other carcinomas. Rare cancers like this one have limited data available and often have limited treatment options.

Persistent Symptoms

For a year prior to his diagnosis, Alan was experiencing soreness in his jaw. He put off going to the dentist, but at his wife’s urging, he went and got X-rays. A common culprit of jaw pain for busy New Yorkers like Alan is stress, so that was the initial diagnosis. However, the pain did not subside, and Alan tried mouth guards, had more X-rays, and consulted with an oral surgeon. He also did not rule out the possibility that maybe he was just a hypochondriac.

Shortly after that, while lying on the beach in the Caribbean alongside his wife, Alan realized he was still experiencing pain. “I’m relaxed right now; this pain can’t be from stress.” He came home and visited another oral surgeon who reviewed his scans and noticed a shadow that deserved a closer look. Alan then went to an otolaryngologist, and it was there he received the cancer diagnosis.

Grappling With a Diagnosis

While concerned for himself, Alan was more worried about his pregnant wife, who knew what it was like for a loved one to have cancer. He did not want her to experience that emotional roller coaster all over again. His first instinct was, “you see the tumor on the scan, just remove it. I feel good, I want to get it out and move on with my life.” He realized how little he knew about cancer. Within 24 hours, he learned about metastasis, recurrence, staging, and the makeup of a tumor. He then made the mistake of searching the internet and learned of the high likelihood of lung metastasis without many proven treatment options. “I asked my doctor, ‘why should I think I have anything other than a death sentence?’”

His doctor’s response was not what Alan expected, but it resonated, and still does today. He said, “every day, research changes the odds in your favor.”

Why Cancer Research?

When he was diagnosed, there were no known forms of chemotherapy or targeted therapies for his cancer. The only treatment options post surgery were radiation or waiting. The past decade has shown many advancements in treatments for all types of cancer, especially rare cancers. Another benefit of research is the shift in thinking about metastases. “If my scans show an uptick of activity in my lungs, it will be awful, but it can be dealt with. This is because I know with all my heart that research works.” Research works in mysterious ways. A study may not be successful for one type of cancer but what is uncovered can show promise for another.

Often the very treatment cancer patients receive to cure them results in lifelong side effects or collateral damage. This held true for Alan, and 13 years later he still experiences the ongoing challenges that are common for people who received head and neck radiation. Research has also changed the game in this area. Of course, finding a cure is paramount, but research also significantly focuses on things such as early detection, treatment options, and overall quality of life.

Alan remains certain that from the start of his career at ICRF to the end, there will be a substantial change in cancer statistics – for the better. “When you hear cancer diagnoses are up, it means research is working. We are learning about things quicker, and we see fatalities down even with diagnoses up. I am confident that in our lifetime, not only will we see mortality down, but we’ll also see an increase in the quality of life for survivors.”

Finding ICRF: Everything Happens for a Reason

Alan decided to pivot to the nonprofit sector to repay the world for the gift of life. He feels spiritually connected to Israel and its people and to his temple community, which supported him and his wife throughout their challenging journey. “In a million years I never thought I’d run a nonprofit let alone an Israeli cancer research organization. When I found ICRF I thought, wow, there’s a bigger plan for all of us. This happened for a reason.”

Alan assumed the role of ICRF Executive Director in January 2024. He was previously ICRF’s National Director of Advancement and joined the organization in 2021 as New York Executive Director. “After I was diagnosed, I now see the world as two groups of people. Those who are willing to do something about a situation and those who are hoping someone else will. As a survivor, I’m part of the group who wants to do something. I benefitted from research facilitated and conducted by people who care, and I want the same for everyone else.”  

Advice for Cancer Survivors and Their Families

This Too Shall Pass – Alan often reflects on his journey, focusing on what he gained. He urges patients and their loved ones to find reasons to laugh and celebrate even in the most challenging moments. “When we think of ‘this too shall pass,’ most people refer to that for bad moments. However, even in dark times, there are good things that will pass. Don’t let them. Double down on laughter and finding reasons to celebrate.”

Support Each Other – Alan stresses one final point relating to the impact of a cancer diagnosis on family members, especially as he navigated these waters alongside his expecting wife. “To those of you in the fight, while your loved ones may not fully understand what you’re going through, you have no idea what they’re going through. The biggest advice I can give is that you must support each other as you get to the finish line together.” 

Alan eagerly looks forward to all that the future holds, with an outlook shaped by the challenges of his past.

“I see life a lot clearer – you live the reality of none of us are promised a tomorrow – so make the world today what you want it to be for you and your children. For me, this is a cancer-free world.”

There are millions of cancer survivors, and each one has their own story. What unites all of the stories is hope — and what gives us hope is research. We hope you’ll help ICRF sustain groundbreaking cancer research in Israel, so we can continue changing the odds in favor of cancer patients everywhere.

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