Cancer is a word most people hope they never hear from their doctor, but for one Newton woman, she is in the early stages of battling a second round of the disease.
Renae Heikkila was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in November after experiencing pain in her side that simply would not go away. It was tough news to hear for Heikkila and her family as she had battled breast cancer in 2016. She had a double mastectomy in December of 2016, which set her on a long and grueling path to recovery.
Complications from the healing caused Heikkila to develop sepsis, and she was hospitalized in April 2017. By May of 2018, she was healthy enough to undergo an 11-hour reconstruction surgery that did not go as planned. Heikkila was forced to have more surgeries and more hospital stays to address her wounds that wouldn’t heal.
In February 2019, she was hospitalized again for ketoacidosis and was diagnosed with diabetes — another battle for her to fight, as her sister Amanda Butler put it. Heikkila had to make more changes to deal with this new health hurdle.
“Just when it seemed that the worst was behind them, toward the end of October of 2020, Renae went into the ER with an annoying pain in her side that only seemed to have gotten worse over several months and had reached the point where the pain was unbearable,” Butler said.
The doctor ran some tests and delivered the news — cancer. Yet another battle to fight and this time against one of the most aggressive types of cancer.
“Honestly, it’s been devastating for her. She has been rocked by this. I think there is a sense of shock and disbelief and you are numb for awhile. And then it all sets in that you are about to fight for your life, yet again, and the game face starts to disappear,” Butler said.
The pandemic has made the fight more complicated. Butler said Heikkila’s immune system couldn’t handle COVID-19, so she has to be extremely careful about exposure. This means family and friends haven’t been able to be around her in person to offer support or help at appointments like they were in 2016.
“She still finds the silver lining though, knowing that most people with this kind of cancer don’t catch it as early as we did and her chances of beating it are better than most. That in itself is a little miracle,” Butler said.
Heikkila’s doctors have established a treatment plan, and she started chemotherapy Nov. 30. The first round wasn’t as bad as she thought it would be but the following two have been “brutal.”
“She struggles to eat or drink anything. She’s lost 25 pounds since October. She’s exhausted most of the time and nauseous,” Butler said.
She has been undergoing chemotherapy treatments and will then move to radiation treatments after the chemo regimen. She will eventually have surgery to remove the part of the pancreas and spleen where the tumor is located.
“They will reassess after the surgery for future treatment; and since this type of cancer has such a high recurrence rate, she will be monitored for the rest of her life which we hope is very long,” Butler said.
Not one to ask for help, Butler has stepped in to help the family with medical bills. Heikkila hasn’t been able to work at her job at Lonnie Portner State Farm since Oct. 27. The past four years have been financially taxing for the family. After Butler found out Heikkila had sold her car to help pay bills, she knew she had to find a way to help her sister.
“I know this will not be easy. My sister Kelly Jolley and I, as well as one of Renae’s best friends, Stacy Foreman, have been coordinating fundraising efforts for Renae to soften the financial blow. It’s enough to deal with mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually, and we don’t want finances to be yet another thing for them to worry about,” Butler said.
A GoFundMe page has been established in Heikkila’s honor for a platform for people who are willing to donate. The goal is to raise $10,000 and more than $3,500 has been collected so far.
“We still have a little ways to go to meet our goal. Every little bit helps ease the burden,” Butler said.
The group is also selling merchandise with all the proceeds going to help Heikkila. They are selling T-shirts for $20 in purple, black or gray. People can also purchase bracelets and koozies for $5. All are emblazoned with the slogans “Heikkila Strong” and “Keep on Heikkin’!” in support of Heikkila’s cancer journey.
Foreman has been the front runner in coordinating these items on social media. The first order was placed in December and will be distributed soon. A second order is planned for Feb. 28. Those wanting to buy any of these items can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Heikkila’s employer, Lonnie Portner, has also joined the charge helping support her journey. He will be selling the bracelets and koozies out of his office to help raise money for Heikkila’s expenses.
“She loves her job and has really been overwhelmed with the support,” Butler said. “(Portner) has gone above and beyond to help her through this situation.”
Butler understands everyone has just finished a really hard year and some people may not be in a position to donate. For those wanting to offer emotional support, they are invited to follow Heikkila’s journey through her Facebook group. Heikkila posts live updates about how her treatment is going, and it offers a place for people to show their support while social distancing and isolation is so important for Heikkila’s health.
“If all you can give is a few words of encouragement, then we would love for you to write her a note on her updates page. She reads those messages and they do help lift her spirits,” Butler said.
Heikkila is surrounded by her tight-knit family as she embarks on this second battle with cancer. Her husband, Art, five children and grandchildren, as well as her siblings continue to help her through this journey. Butler said she and her brother and sisters have always been close and will do anything to help each other in times of need.
Seeing someone you love battle for her life is not something anyone wants to experience, however Butler has seen first hand the strength and resiliency her sister brings to the battle.
“Renae has been through so much in her life and knocked down so many times, yet she still seems to find the strength to continue to rise up and fight. She is one of the strongest people I know, and I know she can beat this. If anybody can, she can,” Butler said.
Contact Pam Pratt at 641-792-3121 ext. 6530 or email@example.com