August 2014: the summer before Rocky was diagnosed
Cancer can feel like a nightmare. Diagnosis and subsequent treatment can be devastating to a patient, and it is hard on the patient’s family as well. Often, family members feel helpless watching their loved one fight this horrible disease.
In the case of the Heckman family, patriarch Rocky Heckman was diagnosed with brain cancer, a disease which is not only terminal, but has altered (and continues to alter) his personality.
“All cancer is bad; however, brain cancer is unique,” says Rocky’s wife, Lorell. “It’s like someone has taken an eraser to my husband’s brain. Part of his brain is damaged, and there’s no way for him to know what’s missing.”
The traumatic situation has affected each member of the Heckman family in different ways, and while their love for one another has helped them through this difficult time, the reality of the situation has been a struggle – one that is impossible to understand without experiencing it firsthand.
When Rocky was diagnosed with brain cancer, the perception of a “normal life” shattered for the Heckmans. The family’s first oncologist coldly relayed brain cancer mortality rates and gave Rocky a grim prognosis – one year to live.
“What do you do with that?” asks Lorell. “You can’t plan on dying.”
Lorell’s first reaction was anger. She didn’t appreciate her husband being treated as a statistic; to the doctor maybe Rocky was just a patient, but to her, Rocky is someone that she loves. Lorell and Rocky met with several other doctors, until they had a team they were confident in.
Yet, even with the right team, the treatment has been hell on Rocky. There have been several side effects and it has caused him a great deal of pain, leaving him with permanent right frontal lobe damage and short term memory loss. Problem solving, initiating daily activities, and planning in advance are just a few of the struggles. Simply processing new situations is an issue; he relies heavily on routines.
Perhaps the worst part for Rocky’s family is his lack of emotion and empathy. The disease has left him very flat; the personality he once had is gone.
This is not romantic,” Lorell emphasizes. “It’s not a movie where it’s all candle light dinners until he dies one day. There are bills to pay. You have to plan for the worst but find the strength to keep on living.”
When Lorell isn’t at the cancer treatments with Rocky, she’s busy with paperwork, trying to keep the house and yard work from piling up, and running the Heckmans’ two family- owned businesses.
“We’ve been married 38 years. We fell into roles. He checks oil. I clean bathrooms. We didn’t have to wonder if the other was getting things done,” says Lorell. “I counted on him for those things. Now I’m filling both roles because he mentally or physically can’t.”
Expenses and legalities have made the situation all the more stressful.
“Insurance claims alone will baffle you,” says Lorell, “but your insurance company can hire an advocate to help you. Mine helped me with all the claims at the beginning and for that I’m thankful.”
Lorell believes that finding advocates and educators is important, especially when you’re too exhausted (emotionally and physically) to think straight. Having family around to make decisions can also be helpful; however, it can bring about its own set of issues.
“We had a normal family,” says Lorell. “We have three kids. We raised them right. But what this cancer did was reveal the racks. Part of the family’s foundation was crumbling and when everyone hit rock bottom with their pain, all of our problems surfaced. I thought our family was broken.”
Rocky’s cancer has tested the strength of the Heckman family. Lorell says that they’re working to fix the cracks and that they’ve become a stronger family because of it. And while the Heckmans must process the situation as a whole, each member is coping with it in their own particular way.
Although the final stage of grief is supposedly acceptance, anyone who has experienced grief knows that there are relapses of previous stages, particularly anger and depression.
“Six months into Rocky’s treatment, I was close to a mental breakdown,” Lorell says. “I couldn’t go out in public. Every time I saw a married couple, I would get extremely angry and jealous, and it would make me cry.”
Lorell’s situation made it difficult for her to relate to others, so she turned to the internet to find people that were going through similar experiences.
“When I looked inward, I’d wallow. We all fight a battle, and helping others weather a storm helped me not feel as bad about my own circumstances,” she says.
This relief in speaking with others like her inspired Lorell to develop her own local support group in Great Falls – Cancervive It. This group will consist of cancer patients and their loved ones. Meetings will begin with an informational class, followed with discussion where patients and care givers will split into two groups to share experiences and lend support.
Helping others gives Lorell the strength to keep fighting alongside Rocky, while the Heckman children lend strength and support in their own ways.
When Rocky was diagnosed, Hanna, Lorell and Rocky’s youngest daughter, was fulfilling her duties as Miss Rodeo Montana 2015 and competing to be Miss Rodeo America.
“As Miss Rodeo Montana, the plan was for my parents to get to travel with me during the experience of a lifetime…
that quickly changed,” says Hanna. “I wanted to quit, it was no longer important to me to continue but I’m glad I didn’t because seeing my dad proud of me when I made it to the end made it all worthwhile.”
Rocky wanted that opportunity for Hanna; therefore, staying the course was difficult but rewarding for the both of them.
Meanwhile, Colter Heckman, the middle child and only son, leant a hand by taking over Rocky’s outfitting business. Rocky still accompanies Colter, leading hunting treks through the mountains, but Colter does most of the work. He doesn’t do it because the business has to survive; he does it because it’s what his father knows and loves.
“It’s not necessarily economical,” Colter explains, “but it’s something I can do for Dad. It’s not what I want to do my whole life but there’s plenty of time for that down the road.”
Like Lorell, Colter notes that the cancer has tried to tear his family apart and that they can’t let that happen.
“I feel like I’m losing my dad, and I don’t want to lose them all,” says Colter. “Sometimes it’s easier to sit back and let God be in control than bicker over every decision that needs to be made.”
Faith in God is important to the whole family. Lorell and Rocky’s oldest daughter, Amanda, relies heavily on the Lord for strength. Living in Washington with seven children, she has few opportunities to visit home. She struggles with being a mother and a daughter at the same time. “It’s difficult being away from my family during this,” she says. “Faith in the Lord has helped me through this. I’ve learned to extend others a little grace when they say the wrong thing about it.”
What Not to Say
Often, it can be difficult for people outside of a crisis to know what to say to those living through it. Consequently, people say some foolish things.
“Don’t tell us to keep fighting; we know we have to keep fighting,” says Lorell. Unless you’ve gone through cancer, trying to relate isn’t a good idea either. “Everyone has a cancer story. I don’t want to hear about someone you know who died from it.”
Lorell admits that there have been days when she’s reacted poorly to these sorts of comments and advice. She understands that others are in an awkward position, but would like people to understand where she’s coming from too.
“Give people the benefit of the doubt,” she says. “You don’t know their struggles. Maybe when they go home they have to talk to their husband about what kind of funeral he wants.”
Amanda says she once heard it explained best by a man who lost his son; “Your world has shattered, but you go to the store and you’re surrounded by other people. Their worlds are still intact. You have to be mindful of that.”
Rocky weighed in too. “I think good-hearted people are just trying to do their best,” he says. Still, there are some things that annoy him.
The first is when people try to give him advice without knowing what they’re talking about. What bothers him more is when people don’t treat him like a human being, especially doctors.
“My first doctor gave me twelve months to live,” says Rocky. “Cancer has become a big business and some people have lost sight of how it affects people on a personal level.”
So far, Rocky has outlived his prognosis by four months.
“He jokes that he’d like to buy a Corvette but with his luck he’d be alive tomorrow to pay for it,” says Lorell. She admits that the joke isn’t actually funny but she appreciates her husband’s attempt to find humor in the wake of this terrible disease.
“You have to keep yourself going to treat your family like you should,” says Rocky.
Lorell and Rocky are thankful for a lot of little things, like the fact that they were able to raise their children to adulthood before this happened. And despite the nightmare they’ve endured they know there are those who have it worse…
In 2015, Rocky and Lorell flew to the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University Medical Center. In spite of previous treatments, Rocky’s tumor had come back. To make matters worse, he’d dislocated his shoulder during a seizure and doctors would not be able to reset it until after the cancer treatment was complete. For 26 hours, Rocky lay in the ER 2,600 miles from home. But his own pain was not on his mind.
“We’d been through the Children’s Hospital earlier,” explains Lorell. “My husband looked up at me and said, ‘I don’t think we have it as bad as the others. We need to take every opportunity to smile.’”
Even with all that has happened, the Heckman family is trying to find the good in their situation. Hanna speaks for the family when she says, “Sometimes abiding in what has been thrown your way is exactly what you need for you to be able to get to the good stuff. I am thankful for every day that I get a good morning text from my dad. We love and appreciate each other more and we express it more often. We have learned to live as if all of our days are numbered.”
Let this be a reminder to all of us that a little love and compassion can go a long way, and that perhaps our problems aren’t quite as large as we imagine.