acute myeloid leukemia (AML)
I was a senior in high school preparing to graduate. I had summer plans to work at my youth group camp and endless ideas for my future. That all came crashing down on May 27, 2002, when I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML). AML is a rare and rapidly growing cancer of the bone marrow that destroys the production of normal blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. At the time of my diagnosis, my family was given devastating odds that only a miracle could fix. I was so dangerously sick that I needed multiple transfusions immediately, and that was just the beginning. There was no time to talk about fertility options; my body was already shutting down. I even knocked on heaven’s door twice. In just four months, I was blasted with multiple intense chemotherapies and rounds of total body radiation. After some time in intensive care, I managed to gain ground, waking up confused by the reflection I saw in the dark hospital window. I didn't recognize this hairless, frail-looking stranger staring back at me until I realized it was me.
I was lucky enough to have three sisters, two of who matched me genetically in what is called a "perfect match." I underwent a successful bone marrow transplant on September 17, 2002. After a year of complete isolation due to my compromised immune system, I was re-vaccinated and slowly began to put back the pieces of my life. I was told at every step of the way there could be a 50% chance of cancer returning and that I was most likely infertile. After 11 years of living in remission, my routine labs showed controlled blood levels and zero hormone function. On September 1, 2013, my naturally conceived, miracle daughter blessed us with her surprising arrival ― early but healthy and unfazed from her Mommy's previous medical history. Together we created a happy world feeling rather free.
In 2019, as she prepared to start Kindergarten, I began chemotherapy and radiation again. I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer (IDC) stage 2. I was 35 years old fighting cancer for the second time. The news struck with a cruel blow, and time wasn't in my favor, so I quickly underwent a unilateral mastectomy and lymph node dissection before starting chemotherapy and radiation. Remembering how painful it was to lose my hair, I thought to prepare and embrace it this time and had my daughter help me shave my head. Afterward, we got temporary henna tattoos which allowed me to adjust my sails and my mindset.
Navigating through a pandemic behind a mask, concerned about having an immune system disaster, was just like living with neutropenia, so I could handle this part. But I still needed help. I found support in more ways than one. On May 24, 2020, my story was featured on Family Reach's Cooking Live with Chef Ming Tsai and helped raise $454,321.81 in financial relief for families fighting cancer. I was on my way to healing and had a follow-up scan revealing that I would also now need a thyroidectomy. Luckily it was detected early, and after the total removal, I could continue on the long-term metastatic regimen along with thyroid medication for life but wouldn't need additional radiation. On May 21, 2021, I joined Project Athena and hiked 52 miles harbor to harbor in San Diego with seven powerful cancer thrivers. On October 23-24, 2021, I went surfing and kayaking in Santa Barbara with First Descents, and my cancer thriving family grew even more. On December 4, 2021, I reconnected with my Athena Sisters, and together we did a 5k Mudgirl Run with 18 obstacles, crossing the finish line with my daughter. I am now a Brand Ambassador for Fighting Pretty, a Patient Advocate for Family Reach, and homeschooling my daughter through elementary school.
I am a poet, advocate, endurance athlete, and single mom who will one day finish this book I am writing about living with cancer. I share my story because even when the odds seem dim, miracles can happen. There is a strange gift cancer gives you of unconditional love in the blended family of survivors, thrivers, and fighters the second you say "I have cancer." I feel that we need to hear stories of hope to keep our eyes on the horizon as we continue to adjust the sails of life. Knowing also that if you fall in, just keep swimming, and reach up. Rescuing hands of relief are here to support in any way they can. My name “Renee” means reborn, and today is my birthday-birthday. I like to think my Aquarius self has done well swimming along with the definition of my name, but I also know that I've picked up some courage along the way, rebuilding these torn sails, redefining what it means to be "born again."