When going through a traumatic life experience, people have different methods of coping, and most people lean heavily upon a support group of some kind to offer strength when they have none. But Renee has never been most people.
Born and raised in New Orleans by a typical southern, bayou-based family, Renee headed north for college. After completing her undergraduate degree at MIT, she then continued on to Harvard Medical School, where she earned her PhD in genetics. Then, after ten years of northern winters, Renee was ready to move back south, and began a career in public health at the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in Atlanta.
After two happy years working in the southern metropolis, right around her 30th birthday in 2005, Renee began experiencing a wide range of symptoms that landed her in the ER. But after being sent home with no clear answers, Renee put her focus back on normal life–only to have another twist in the road present itself in the form of Hurricane Katrina. Despite persistent pain and her recent emergency room visit, Renee was soon on the road to New Orleans to rescue her mother and sister from the storm, and move them in with her for a time.
But when Renee’s symptoms persisted and even worsened, a second ER visit (this time with her mother by her side) ended with a diagnosis of Stage 4 ovarian cancer.
Yet through it all, Renee remained calm. “I am certainly not an optimist,” she says. “I’m a realist, but I just had this feeling that I was not going to die from this, and that kept me going. It was frustrating and painful, but to me, not making it through was not an option. It wasn’t going to happen that way.” Renee also feels her medical background helped her stay grounded throughout the ordeal. “Even when the doctors
| would use ‘medical speak,’ I understood what they were talking about,” she explains. Which gave Renee the opportunity to be the source of comfort to those around her. “My mom would be beside herself with worry, because she didn’t understand what the doctors were saying, but I was able to explain things to her calmly,” recalls Renee.
And although she is typically a very guarded person, throughout her extensive treatment and recovery, Renee chose to put aside her own feelings and open up to those closest to her about the ordeal: “I’m a very independent and private person, but I was quite open with my friends and family about everything that was going on,” she says. “I pulled together an email list and would send updates and was more open about the whole experience than I’ve been about anything in my whole life. It just seemed natural, because I knew my loved ones were worried.”
Now, a full eight years later, Renee is moving forward and embracing life, while never forgetting where she’s been, or the battle she won. A radiant Renee just walked down the aisle in a tradition-filled New Orleans wedding surrounded by family and friends, and upon returning home, she and her new husband bought a home together, and are planning a honeymoon to an exotic island locale. She’s also planning her annual survivor party: “I’m from New Orleans, so we look for any reason to have a party,” she laughs. But the event has become a yearly occasion that her friends and family count on to commemorate her life. “It’s different every year,” shares Renee. “One year I collected donations for the Georgia Ovarian Cancer Association, one year I had the party in New Orleans, and for my five-year party, I actually rented a venue and made an even bigger to-do out of it. But every year, it’s a whole lot of fun.” And having fun is something Renee relishes. Though her life trajectory may not be exactly what she expected, it doesn’t stop her from enjoying every minute of the life she has. ■ Emily L. Foley