My high school graduation invitation beautifully quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson, “What lies behind us and what lies before are, are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” As a senior in high school, six years ago, little did I know the profound foreshadowing of those words.
But the breast cancer that was lying “within” was no tiny matter. This fight became personal to me, May 16th, 2013, while I was in graduate school. I used to only dream of becoming a Physician Assistant. Now I dream about living, impacting, surviving, thriving and bringing awareness to breast cancer in younger women. It’s not that my original dreams have been derailed; in fact, they have simply been expanded and emboldened by the courage I have found in my diagnoses.
My name is Renee Wilson. I am 25. I grew up in Lubbock, Texas and have played basketball most of my life. Raised in the church, I grew up in a biracial family of six. My undergraduate degree was in Biology, where I competed as a scholarship athlete. I moved to Galveston last year to attend the University of Texas Medical Branch Physician Assistant Program. One day, my life was propelling along, at breakneck speed, sweating bullets and racing from exam to exam. The next, my mom moved into the dorm with me as my caretaker.
One day my mom called and said, “Hey did you hear the news about Angelina Jolie getting a complete elective mastectomy, since she has a strong family history of breast cancer and positive genetic testing?” The next day in class, I received a text from my doctor, “Come into my office today, we need to talk”. Instantly, my heart plunged. I was shocked, horrified, and overwhelmed, yet the heart has a way of hoping. Tears streaming down my face, I called home and told them I have breast cancer, confirmed by ultrasound and biopsy. Those harrowing words! Nothing in life really prepares you for it. I was about to become highly acquainted with the new journey “within” me, that lay dormant all those years.
I had a mass but no family history. No history of radiation, obesity, or use of hormone therapy. As a collegiate athlete, I exercised regularly. My genetic BRCA1 and 2 tests were negative. I had no classic risk factors. But most importantly, I did not have time in my life for the Big C! I was burdened with graduate school loans, living in a dorm, away from family. Single and ready to mingle! Bad timing to say the least! Later that year, a double mastectomy and one positive lymph node confirmed that I had to make time for this new reality in my life: Stage III Invasive Ductal Carcinoma reality! My initial shock turned to dread and devastation at the prospect of chemotherapy, and losing my curly locks. Chemo disturbed me more than the mastectomies! The weekend of my final exam, after completing my first year of PA school, I was capped and gowned (but not the graduating kind) and wheeled into the OR for my surgery.
So what now? I’m still adjusting my physical and emotional thermostat to a new set point, my new normal. I have completed 5 surgeries and fertility treatment. Chemotherapy will last for 5 months. Radiation will follow then reconstruction. I’ve joined the LIVESTRONG exercise program for the YMCA for cancer survivors. I’ve learned to live day to day, or as my cancer mentor Marla Harbin says, “Just run light pole to light pole!” Along with that, I am in training as a co-facilitator for the support group Reconstruction of a Survivor, where my life has been powerfully impacted by the influence of the sisterhood of fellow Cancer Gladiators.
Maya Angelou wrote, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel”. How I feel is blessed, awed, encouraged, reinforced, tranquil, and comforted. Afraid, but yet surrounded by the love of a phenomenal support team. I am not alone. Not for a single test, side effect, or surgery. Such an overwhelming comfort! I can never forget how my support-team ‘makes me feel’!
I am an average student, with an average life. Who on an average day, was told I have Stage 3 Breast Cancer. My life was completely turned upside down. People often wonder, “How are you coping with cancer? How are you handling losing your hair? And what about dating?” At times, I am crushed, confused, and terrified. But I am reminded daily that “the joy of the Lord is my strength” (Nehemiah 8:10) and that I have “this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Hebrews 6:19). I am fighting to join the ranks of survivorship! My game plan is to continue to hope against all odds; dream in response to fear; and survive in the face of adversity! I’ve discovered in my darkest hours, that “what lies within” me is tenacity, an unexplainable sense of humor, resilience, a liberating boldness that I did not have before, and a joyful presence and courage. In the words of John Wayne, “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway”. So, I persevere in the “saddle” of cancer and it too will be “a tiny matter” one day soon!