Strides toward recovery

A year after doctors discovered a cancerous tumor on his brain, Matt Helmke plans to celebrate his recovery by walking across Nevada.

Helmke has made it through brain surgery and chemotherapy. On Sept. 12, he is scheduled to start his monthlong journey traveling from South Lake Tahoe to the Utah border to raise money and awareness for cancer.

“When I was going through this, I never thought I could walk 10 miles again,” he said. “Now, you just try and stop me.”

The journey is expected to take him more than 480 miles.

Helmke was born and raised in Henderson, graduating from Green Valley High School.

Following a family tradition, he joined the U.S. Navy.

“That’s what men in my family did,” he said. “My father did it, and so did my grandfather.”

He did two tours in the Persian Gulf.

“(The Navy) was like my family,” he said. “They fed you and gave you a place to live. Everything was taken care of.”

He got out of the Navy in 1999 and did some traveling trying to figure out his next steps before returning to Henderson.

His initial plan was to test for the Clark County Fire Department, which is where his stepfather worked.

But then Helmke heard there was a job opportunity with a railroad.

“I grew up my whole life here and didn’t realize the train still went through town,” he said. “I fell in love with it. It was like when I was little and got to play with trains, only these trains were much bigger.”

Being a conductor, he got to see parts of Las Vegas he never saw while growing up.

“We went by Burkholder, which is where I went to middle school,” he said. “I never saw a train go by all the time I was in school.”

Because he didn’t have seniority at his job, he was transferred to Elko, where he has worked for five years.

Last year Helmke started having weird daydreams.

“Everyone daydreams from time to time,” he said. “But it was like I wouldn’t snap out of it when people would start talking to me.”

He went to a veterans clinic to get checked out.

“The nurse told me to go to the emergency room,” he said. “I felt fine and didn’t want to go.”

After an urging from his boss, he went to the emergency room later that day.

Doctors discovered a tumor the size of a pingpong ball in his head.

Helmke was told that if he had gone home to go to sleep instead, he probably would have slipped into a coma and died.

He was flown to Utah for emergency surgery where the doctors discovered that the tumor was cancerous.

The next two months of his life were a blur, and he can only remember bits and pieces. His memory started to get clear around November.

“The doctors told me I needed to go through chemo,” he said. “I asked him how long I had to live if I didn’t. He said five to seven.”

Thinking it was five to seven years, Helmke decided to skip the chemotherapy –– knowing how painful it was –– and move to Seattle to be with his daughter.

“But then the doctor told me it was five to seven months,” Helmke said.

Chemotherapy left him without any energy, an appetite or even hope.

“I didn’t think I was going to survive,” he said, “or if I did, I would just be that guy who lays on the couch all day.”

Months went by and MRI scans showed Helmke was improving.

Slowly, his appetite and taste buds started to return.

“Once the chemo started to leave my system, my energy started to return,” he said.

In June, he was asked to participate in American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life as a cancer survivor.

Helmke joined a team and walked 91 laps on the track.

“I wanted to do 100,” he said. “I just ran out of time.”

He decided to do another Relay For Life event a month later with the goal to do 100 laps.

But at 178 laps –– or 44½ miles –– Helmke surpassed his goal.

“My mother jokingly said, ‘Well, maybe you should walk across Nevada,’ ” he said. “That idea never left my head.”

After his July MRI declaring he was still in good shape, Helmke announced that he was going to walk 480 miles across Nevada to raise awareness and money for cancer research.

Helmke has already cultivated support from his friends and family.

Ann Hoskin, a family friend and one of Helmke’s former teachers, has followed up with him throughout his life.

“I found out he was doing this and it was really inspiring,” she said. “He is showing cancer patients that even if they are diagnosed, it doesn’t mean that’s the end.”

Hoskin added that Helmke’s example could be powerful for those going through the same situation.

He plans to walk 12 to 15 miles a day, resting at hotels and homes along the way.

Helmke doesn’t have a fundraising goal but plans to donate what he gets to the American Cancer Society and other organizations.

More than anything, he hopes his story helps other cancer patients.

“If one person hears this and it makes them think, ‘It’s going to get better,’ then it’s worth it,” he said.

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Contact Henderson/Anthem View reporter Michael Lyle at or 702-387-5201.

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