A Quality Life: “Rock Man” Willie’s Cancer Story


At a clinic in Dayton, Ohio—which provides chemotherapy treatment to cancer patients—there’s a man known by all as “Rock Man” Willie. When he’s there, Willie stops at each station to chat with people who could use a good distraction. He carries with him small hand-painted rocks he’s designed, and he hands them out to cheer up others who, like himself, are facing cancer and other serious illnesses. In return for these support rocks, Willie only asks for one thing: a smile.

Bringing a smile to others is “Rock Man” Willie’s mission. But his journey to finding his own happiness has had ups and downs. In 2014, at age 41, Willie was diagnosed with stage IV rectal cancer. Severe pain caused by the illness, along with symptoms from its treatment, left him frustrated and debilitated. Ultimately, his oncologist referred him to a team of medical specialists who could help him regain his quality of life while continuing to fight the cancer. 

This is “Rock Man” Willie’s palliative care story.


What is Palliative Care?

Palliative care (pronounced pal-lee-uh-tiv) is specialized medical care for people living with a serious illness. This type of care focuses on providing relief from the symptoms and stress of the illness. The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family. Palliative care is provided by a specially-trained team of doctors, nurses and other specialists who work together with a patient’s other doctors to provide an extra layer of support. It is appropriate at any age and at any stage, and it can be provided along with curative treatment.

“Before an individual becomes a patient, they’re just a person. I let them know I’m not going to let them forget that,” says Mark Curtis, an advanced practice registered nurse who heads up Willie’s palliative care team. “Here, you’re going to be who you were before diagnosis.” 

Mark and his team of palliative care specialists meet with Willie frequently to tackle his pain, as well as to provide emotional support to him and his wife. The palliative care team also helps Willie set goals for the future, while keeping him focused on finding joy in day-to-day activities. 


Managing Pain, Stress and Other Symptoms

Willie was in a lot of pain throughout his body. He was also frustrated when he first came to palliative care. He was dealing with dramatic physical changes including the need for a colostomy bag and frequent gastrointestinal issues. He also had symptoms from radiation and chemotherapy. These included severe fatigue, weight loss and nausea, as well as foot swelling. 

“Willie was in pain 23 out of 24 hours of the day. Our pain management specialists stepped in right away to provide the right combination of pain medications along with physical therapy, with the goals of relieving suffering and allowing him to be more active,” explains Mark. 

The medication adjustments helped Willie feel better physically. But Willie was still struggling emotionally around chemotherapy treatment cycles. As one cycle ended, he would feel more active and in control. When another round began, he found himself feeling helpless again. These ups and downs frustrated Willie, and created what Mark called a “short fuse” expressed by agitation. 

Mark’s next steps were to give Willie a consistent outlet to talk through his frustrations, and to equip him with coping tools like breathing and meditation skills to find a sense of calm during frustrating periods. 

With several of these issues better controlled, Willie became active enough to enjoy quality time with his wife. This is also when he was inspired to find a creative outlet and started painting whimsical rocks to give to others dealing with serious illnesses.

“Over time, I started to notice Willie laughing more during appointments. Although he considers himself an introvert, Willie is a funny and empathetic person. He can laugh at himself but also can make everyone around him feel better,” says Mark.


Focusing on the Day-to-Day

Although Willie’s cancer battle continues, Mark and the palliative care team encourage him to find ways to keep his mind on the things he can control. For example, Willie focuses on painting new support rocks to cheer others up, which brings him a sense of purpose.  

“It’s wonderful to see Willie light up that center. He does the same for us at every palliative care appointment,” says Mark.

To find out how you or a loved one dealing with a serious illness can benefit from palliative care, visit GetPalliativeCare.org. 



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