My cancer journey started in 2002, just as life was about to begin with my upcoming graduation from high school.
I am the third of four daughters and growing up I’ve always been surrounded by symbols of strength. We went to catholic elementary school and our mascot was the Spartans. Then, in high school, I was a cheerleader and we were the Warriors. I was actively involved in my church youth group and I was excited to volunteer at summer camp before heading off to college to study oceanography. I wanted to be a Jellyologist and study jellyfish and marine botany.
However, life had a different path.
A school friend’s young brother suddenly fell ill with troubling symptoms and we learned that he was going to need a blood transfusion and bone marrow donation. Being the tight-knit community we were, we quickly sprung into action and hosted a drive. I signed up hoping to help but was unable to participate because I didn’t pass the preliminary iron screening and was recommended to follow up with my doctor.
Shortly after, I had my wisdom teeth removed and quickly became very ill.
Recovering from that procedure highlighted the symptoms I was having that I was unaware were so dangerous. At first, my mom thought it was a reaction to the pain medication. Then we noticed the bruises, the confusion, the shortness of breath, the fever.
My Mom took me to the ER and insisted that there was something wrong. They ran some labs and told us things would take a few hours, so I asked if we could sit outside.
It felt like minutes.
Two nurses with a wheelchair came running down the hall outside yelling my name, with a clipboard. They insisted I sit in the wheelchair and quickly whisked me into a small room.
After confirming my identity, the nurse then asked me “do you have a DNR?” I looked at her and said “No I don’t have my drivers licence yet…” which is when my mom leaned over and said “Renee honey, that’s not what that is. Excuse me why would she need a DNR?”
It was at that moment that the world I stood on shifted permanently.
Everything that could go wrong, did. Everything that was a worst case scenario, was and then some.
I spent weeks, months in the hospitals: ICU, CCU, double door isolation and Ronald McDonald house hospitals. I lost my hair twice, spent holidays in the hospital, even my birthday was in isolation.
I was the oldest teenager in Pediatric Oncology Hematology but I had the most incredible team of doctors, nurses, and child life specialists all working with my family and friends to help advocate for me.
When it was all said and done, I underwent multiple rounds of extensive and grueling chemotherapy, total body radiation, and a bone marrow transplant from my sister. There was no fertility saving measures taken.
At one point my mom’s two sisters gave me a pair of mini boxing gloves. One red pair hung from my IV poles and one bronze pair sat on my hospital table. Both were symbols to keep fighting and a reminder that I just had to get through today.
Music motivated me, movies that made me laugh so hard I cried, games to make my mind think of something else, and any opportunity to play a prank on someone kept my spirit playful.
I cried when I needed to, played the angry music when necessary and figured out along the way which doctors listened and who heard me. Then it was time to go home, so I put it all in a box and only brought it up when there was a safe space and carried it safely tucked deep in my heart.
For nearly seventeen years I have had an incredible relationship with my doctors checking every cell we can, constantly monitoring for any possible oddity. I get my blood checked regularly and follow up with specialists routinely for years.
So, when I was getting in the shower one day and saw that the shape of my breast looked different, my heart sank.
My instincts knew, and I couldn’t dial the number fast enough.
I had been told about this when I was 18. It had been explained to me all those years ago that this was a possibility. I had known all this time and carried this with me. I didn’t have to carry it anymore.
But this time was different, because along these 17 years of healing post leukemia, though my relationship didn’t last, the blessing of a beautiful baby girl was a miraculous gift of that love.
I still remember sitting in the waiting room of radiation, alone in my hospital gown scrolling through social media and I see Kara and a Fighting Pretty post and she’s holding a pair of mini boxing gloves - just like the ones my aunties gave me.
I cried my eyes out and knew I just had to know who she is, what she was about, and I had to be her friend.
Finding FIghting Pretty helped me find myself through cancer.
I knew after leukemia I wanted to be involved in this community but I didn’t know how. As a patient advocate, I have spoken at numerous conferences, panel discussions, webinars, and zooms all striving to improve quality of care for patients fighting cancer. I’ve been able to participate in fundraisers and campaigns that support cancer fighting families.
I’ve been able to adventure with incredible people and meet amazing friends with similar scars all over the world. I’ve taken my own experience with breast cancer and lymphedema and now work for a mastectomy and compression fitter and am in the process of certification.
Fighting Pretty for me is just something I’ve always known.
It’s something I’ve always done.
It looks different day to day, and it’s okay if some days require a bit more rest and a little less zest.
I remind myself regularly to slow down and enjoy the moment. Listen to the sounds, feel the nature, smell the flowers, hug people tight, tell them you love them - and often. Do the things you like to do!
Cancer has been one of my biggest teachers and it continues to teach me, even 21 years later I’m still taking notes.