Photos courtesy of Renée

Replacing Holes With Hope When Cancer Preys on Me

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The news hits you so hard it takes your breath away. It stops you in your tracks. It changes everything.

Cancer.

The disease that picks at random to attack the people we love. The illness that preys on your well-being, financial health, and everyone around you.

For me, it was acute myeloid leukemia (AML) that ran through my 18-year-old body quicker than any of us could process. I went from getting my wisdom teeth pulled to being hooked up to machines with tubes everywhere and saying my goodbyes “just in case.”

When cancer came back many years later, I already knew the secret. All I needed was a flicker of hope and then I could nurture it.

Here’s the story of how I’m always fighting for hope.

Finding the flicker of hope

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, the moment I was able to clearly process the shock of my situation came in the intensive care unit. I looked up and saw a reflection of Frankenstein in the window. I had to look twice — it was moving when I moved. My long thick Mexican-Italian hair was gone. I was completely bald and I didn’t even realize it. At just 18, everything was happening so fast and I had no way of understanding the magnitude of it all.

A few days later, an adorable little Hawaiian girl, Kandace, came to visit me. She was 8-years-old and a patient in the same pediatric oncology unit as me. We had the same oncologist, and her leukemia was almost in remission.

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18-year-old Renée in the Critical Care Unit with Kandace.

When my little visitor was leaving, she noticed the pictures, notes, and cards on the walls of my hospital room. One of the photos was of me in my cheerleading uniform. She whispered to her dad, “I didn’t know cheerleaders could get leukemia. I thought just us kids got cancer.”

She didn’t know I heard her, but she did more than warm my heart with her comment. She ignited the hope I was missing.

If not for myself, I had to have hope for her. Whatever procedures and treatment I had to go through, there was no other option but to do it with hope.

From that day on, I learned everything I could about AML: insurance, genetics, short- and long-term risks, side effects, and more. I found power in research. I was motivated by the people around me. I followed the rules, listened intently to my doctors, and asked a million questions.

No matter what the odds of my survival were, I slapped my doubt with a whack of hope.

Nurturing my hope

After cancer entered my life, I was told I would never be able to have children. But I didn’t give up my hope. It got me through unpromising odds once before, and I believed it could again.

I miraculously conceived naturally and gave birth to a healthy beautiful daughter. Now a mom and leukemia-free for 17 years, my hope bucket was filled to the top.

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Renée with her daughter Ava in 2021.

And then I felt it. Left side. A lump that turned out to be stage II metastatic breast cancer.

My health was being attacked again, but this time my source of hope came from my daughter watching me shave my head.

I remembered what I learned as a young adult facing cancer and nurtured my hope. I researched metastatic breast cancer, and AML again. I knew my medicine, the risks, and what my treatment plan was going to look like. I asked even more questions and advocated for my health.

I gently broke the news to my daughter and we held onto our hope as we embraced the changes together. I surrounded myself with “My Squad,” a handpicked team of support that helped me in every way possible. As a single parent and preschool teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was already living on a budget, but things were manageable.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened and everyone was flatlined. I lost my job, my treatment plan changed, and my hope bucket was draining. I adjusted my life to the neutropenic precautions that I had come to learn as a cancer patient but, financially, I was empty.

Then I was granted a refill. I found Family Reach and applied for financial support through their Financial Treatment Program. Their help restored not only my financial health but also my hope.

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Igniting hope for other cancer warriors

After Family Reach helped fill the gaps, I realized my hope was more than reignited. This time it set blaze to a new way of approaching cancer. I might not be able to change this disease, but I can change how it’s faced.

Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, forget what you did, but will never forget how you made them feel.” Lucille Ball said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can change until it is faced.”

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A poem about cancer written by Renée.

I can help other cancer patients feel better by nurturing their seeds of hope. I can share the empowerment I received when I asked for help, the resources I’ve found, the products I’ve used — anything that helps. I can continue to spread hope by getting ahead of the disease. So that when a diagnosis comes, so does a cancer playbook with the advice and resources necessary to continue living while fighting cancer.

For now, the cancer playbook I share will include incredible organizations like Family Reach. And for every woman who has to have surgery as part of their breast cancer treatment, I’ll send them a “hope” shirt from the nonprofit Redefined Courage I now help lead so they’re wrapped up with the spirit of warriors as they heal. I’ll pair that with mini pink boxing gloves from Fighting Pretty to remind her that she’s a fighter.

When “I” is replaced with “we” even “illness” becomes “wellness.” As we bravely face the things we cannot change with hope, we see the light despite how dark it is and we keep going.

Learn more about how Family Reach’s Financial Treatment Program helps cancer patients and their families overcome the financial barriers that accompany a diagnosis.

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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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