Photos courtesy of Renée

Cancer Survivor Shares Her Journey to Motherhood

Reading Time: 6 minutes

“If it wasn’t for cancer, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

The first time I said that I laughed. The irony in the statement was too much to not at least crack a smile.

But it’s true: If it wasn’t for the most heartbreaking, terrifying, and excruciatingly painful moments of my life, I would not have everything I have today.

This is my story of how cancer gave me life.

Meeting cancer for the first time  

It all starts when I was an 18-year-old high school senior, surrounded by doctors explaining next steps while my terrified mother, grandmother, and younger sister sat in complete shock. The doctors had just told me I had some type of cancer. Also that I had less than hopeful odds.

To be clinically accurate, it was acute myeloid leukemia and I had less than a 25% chance of surviving the week, let alone making it through grueling treatment. I remember the doctors explaining everything but after “cancer” all I really heard was that voiceover sound from “Charlie Brown” whenever the adults talked. When they finally asked me if I had any questions, I asked “okay, but can I have kids?”

The doctors looked at each other, then back at me with sad eyes, and solemnly shook their heads. Then one of them looked at me and said “I cannot promise you anything except that I am brave and I am smart and I can fight with you if you’re ready. Are you ready?”

I was too scared to speak but I nodded and just like that, it all began. Within four months, I underwent four rounds of intense and painful chemotherapy, full-body radiation, targeted radiation to my lungs, and a bone marrow transplant … and that’s the summarized version.

Dreaming of motherhood

Ever since I was a little girl I dreamed of growing up to be a mom and a teacher. I was always with my baby dolls, always playing school.

From the moment cancer entered my world, I obsessively asked every doctor or specialist I met about their opinion on my chances of having kids. For 11 years, the response was always the same: highly unlikely due to all my treatments. The way I understood it was that I had scrambled eggs and a possible semi-functioning oven. In August 2012, I had another full-screen of tests that confirmed there was zero hormonal function of my ovaries without medication inducing my period.

Fast forward to March 2013 and I was at my doctor’s office for severe abdominal pain. We did some routine bloodwork and when the lab results came back, I was stumped. What did it mean to test positive for hCG, the hormone that pregnancy tests detect? Was it a false positive? Did I have cancer again?

I met with my doctor the next day and she performed an ultrasound. We naturally began dancing around the possibility of a tumor, cyst, or cancer. Then she stopped herself mid-sentence and said, “Oh wow, you gotta see this!”

There on the monitor was a clear image of a tiny baby, sucking its thumb. It turned to wave hi and went back to sucking its thumb. I was about fourteen weeks and the baby was off to a very healthy start. My expected due date was September 17, 2013, which also happened to be the eleventh anniversary of my bone marrow transplant.

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Mom, Teacher, and Survivor: Renée Shares Her Cancer Story

I couldn’t have been any more shocked. I had a long-term boyfriend at the time, though we weren’t trying to get pregnant. Quite the opposite, we were on the verge of running our course.

Nothing else mattered. I had been ready to be a mom for as long as I could remember.

Loving my little girl

Since the universe likes to keep my stories interesting, I found out my little baby was stuck in the breech position when I was six-months pregnant and ended up having a cesarean section.

Though she was premature and very tiny, she was healthy and strong. I smelled her, kissed her, and couldn’t believe it wasn’t a dream. Everything I had fought, endured, and questioned. All the pain and anxiety; all those nights of praying, wishing, and hoping that one day I would be a mom.

It was real. She was real and I am her mom.

Seven years later, she loves art and math, and she has a kitten that adores her so much it follows her everywhere. She starts first grade this year and wants to be a doctor. She comes with me to my appointments and doesn’t even wiggle when she has to get blood work or vaccines. In fact, she likes to watch the phlebotomist and reenacts it at home on any willing patient.

CA - Renee with daughter 2
Renée and Ava pose for an adorable mom and daughter selfie

Last year was off to a great start for both of us until I received my second diagnosis – this time breast cancer.

When I started chemotherapy, we took control where we could and she helped me shave my head. To embrace the change we got henna tattoos together; hers on her hand and arm, mine on my round shaved head. She helped me pick out hats and wigs and there were many days I drove her to school wearing a bright mermaid purple wig simply because she requested it!

I knew how special it would feel to be a mom, but I didn’t expect it to feel like this. Even on the hard days, it’s worth it. There are many nights I think I’m doing it all wrong but I see her thriving and take a deep breath. I may not have it all figured out – or have the most reliable health – but I have her and she’s all I need. She fuels every ounce of my energy to fight this again.

Her name is Ava, which means “life” and my name is Renée, which means “born again.” Together, she and I are truly living up to the meaning of our names.

So there it is. If it wasn’t for cancer, I couldn’t be reborn to survive, fulfill my destiny, and create the greatest thing I have ever made: life.

Show your support for cancer heroes like Renée by making a donation, becoming a Key Holder, or giving Hope for the Holidays.

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Renée Firato
Guest Writer

Mom to Ava, preschool teacher, and endlessly inspiring cancer hero, Renée received support from our Financial Treatment Program in April 2020. Through her gift of gab and wonderful way with words, she’s eager to share her perspective with the Family Reach community.

Read more from Renée.

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