Rena and her mother flew from Florida to the North East to spend the holidays with her sister. It was 2009 and a particularly cold December. It was so cold Rena remembers her sister lighting the fire, for the first time ever. They settled down together in front of it, but Rena, still feeling chilly, tucked her hands under her arms to warm them up. It was then she felt the lump. On Christmas Day.
Mother and daughter flew back to Florida as soon as they could and went straight to the GP. The lump was immediately identified as an area of concern, it was hard, not soft, and it had not been there two months earlier, at Rena’s regular check up. An appointment with a surgical oncologist and a biopsy followed.
Rena, curling her long blond hair, was just getting ready to go on a blind date when she heard the phone ring. It was a surgical technician, a stranger, calling to tell her she had stage 1 invasive breast cancer. Stunned, Rena carried on out the door. Half way through the evening and “one too many martini’s later” Rena admitted to her date about the call she had just received. The evening ended. Back home, alone, Rena sat down in her kitchen, and called her Mum.
Rena and I were in the HSN green room when she told me her story. A make up artist by trade she was getting me ready for a show. I ask Rena what words of advice she could offer other young women, who find them selves in a similar situation. “Breathe,” says Rena. “Everything comes at you so fast. Not only all the medical worries, but the financial worries.” Rena was only working freelance for HSN at this time, so was not eligible for full insurance. She decided as she was young and wanted to have kids, she should get her eggs frozen. In amongst the whirlwind of coping with everything, Rena managed to harvest her eggs. She paid for a few months storage and then concentrated on her chemo process. No one contacted her further and by the time Rena resurfaced from her personal trauma the hospital had lost her eggs. Now, after years of searching there is still no trace of them. “How appalling, Rena!” I said. She thought for a moment, “Its in God’s hands,” she said quietly.
By March 2nd 2010 Rena underwent a full bilateral mastectomy. Her genetic testing indicated that she would always be at risk of breast and ovarian cancer. By April her hair fell out. She remembers it clearly. It was Cinco de Mayo and her friends were going to the beach to celebrate, but Rena was afraid she would be “a dandelion in the wind.” Rena could literally feel her hair dislodging.
Rena wanted to find a wig. She decided, “If I look good on the outside, I will feel good on the inside.” (For insurance reasons this has to be referred to as a ‘Cranial Prosthetic.’ Seriously? Could they not think of a little less humiliating name?) Chemo brought on the menopause, which brought on the hot flashes, which made the wig itch. And it was summer time. In Florida.
Rena was also self-administering hormone shots directly into her stomach, which for someone frightened by needles was terrifying. “The other bit of advice I would offer,” Rena tells me, “is to speak to a therapist. Its hard remaining positive all the time.”
Mid-chemo, Rena decided it was time to start dating. “I felt a sense of urgency that I had never known before,” she says. Setting herself up on Match.com she explained she looked a little different than she used to. She says it certainly filtered out the jerks. By the end of August she was speaking daily to Keith, although they did not meet till October. Detailing boats at sea did not make it easy. When they finally met in person he told her his own story.
A few years earlier he was captaining a boat in the Atlantic, when a dark storm blew in. The owner’s dog fell overboard and Keith dived in to save it. Surfacing the freezing waters a few seconds later, he saw no dog–and more horrifyingly–no boat. Keith was lost at sea for 16 hours. When he was finally rescued, the team who pulled him out of the water were amazed he was alive.
Rena and Keith found each other during Rena’s storm. Keith pulled Rena from the freezing waters and took her to safety. They are planning their wedding at the end of this year.
Rena, like my mother, was lucky. A cancer survivor. Wesley’s mother was not.
Check-ups are crucial.