Real-Life Inspiration: Three Women Who Define Strength
There is nothing that can prepare you to hear the words: “You have cancer.” And yet, it’s something that more than 1.6 million Americans are told each year. Numbers like that can make it easy to forget that every single one of those 1.6 million people had to digest that news and then quickly figure out what to do next. In honor of National Cancer Survivor’s Day, which takes place on June 4 this year, here are the very personal, very real stories of three Michiganders and what happened after their cancer diagnosis.
“No one plans for cancer in high school.”
Imagine this: You’re 17 years old, three months away from your high school graduation and you notice something a little weird with your neck one day. After receiving a misdiagnosis of strep throat, you eventually learn that you have Hodgkins Lymphoma.
This is Katelynn Rendi‘s story.
Before her diagnosis, Katelynn was a high school student athlete with big goals. “I played varsity volleyball and basketball—I wanted to play at a division two college, then go into teaching,” she says. In fact, she was so sporty that when she noticed the early signs of cancer, she assumed it was something to do with how athletic she was. “I lost a lot of weight even though I was eating five times a day and working out twice per day,” she remembers. “I’m pretty tall and have always been skinny, but my basketball coach expressed concern about my size and the amount of fatigue I felt.”
Katelynn was diagnosed in March 2012, three days after her final high school basketball game. “My main questions after I got diagnosed were if I was going to lose my hair, if I could go on my senior spring break to Mexico and if I could still go to my dream school, Michigan State University, in the fall,” she says.
After a six-month chemotherapy regiment, which did stop her from going on that spring break trip, Katelynn heard some amazing news. “It was August 28, 2012, and my doctors told me I was cancer-free,” she recalls. This August will be the five year anniversary of that date, and it’s when she’ll officially be able to say her cancer is in remission.
Katelynn was able to start on time at Michigan State, even though she was still finishing up her chemotherapy. And, while there, she joined a number of cancer-related civic groups, including Spartans Fighting Cancer and Wish Upon a Teen. The thread that connects these groups: They serve a “forgotten” age group affected by cancer: young adults. “You often hear about organizations that impact young children, but teenagers who are trying to figure out their life while fighting cancer need support too,” she says.
“There are things I never would have done without this struggle.”
Marjie Jenkins, 34, noticed a lump between her shoulder and breast in early 2014, but didn’t think much of it. “I assumed it was there from a workout, since I had been lifting weights that day. But after talking to my husband, we decided I should go have it looked at,” Marjie says. “We were both pretty sure it was nothing since I felt fine and was at an age where breast cancer isn’t a high probability.”
Unfortunately, she would eventually receive a stage 2 breast cancer diagnosis just after the 4th of July. “There was definitely some shock. Especially since the doctors were so sure that at my age the results would come back negative,” she says. The cancerous tumors were removed and she started chemotherapy. During her treatments, her husband supported her in her household roles while her job allowed her to work from home, accommodating her treatment and appointment schedule.
In addition, her friends would prepare food on the weeks she had surgery or treatment to allow her to rest and recuperate. “I was fortunate to have a support network that would do anything for me,” Marjie says. Ultimately, Marjie was told she was in remission. “There is always the fear that it could come back,” she reflects. “You feel like you are always looking over your shoulder – every pain, every new feeling, it all makes you worry.”
In 2016, Marjie created an organization called Project Chasing Life as a way to help young cancer patients and survivors check items off of their bucket lists. “You will never be the same person when you come through a battle like cancer,” she affirms. “It can’t help but change you in some small ways and some profound ways. I accept and appreciate that. There are friends I never would have had and things I never would have done without this struggle.”
“You always have a choice.”
Meghan Malley, 35, describes her life before her cancer diagnosis as wonderful. “I had recently started my career as a doctor of physical therapy, I was an avid photographer and I’d just started a small business photographing families and children,” she says. “I also loved to exercise, travel and spend time outdoors with my husband and dog.”
But Meghan had also experienced years of pain and abnormalities in her breast. She ultimately underwent biopsies and was diagnosed with invasive lobular breast cancer just two days after her 29th birthday. “We learned it had spread to my bones, meaning it was stage IV incurable metastatic breast cancer,” she says. “It was shocking and devastating.”
The support of loved ones helped Meghan manage her emotions in a healthy way. “I am grateful that I was raised by an incredibly strong single mother who has shown me how to get through tough times,” she shares. “She always encouraged me to express my emotions and be open and honest about what I was going through. That’s been a crucial coping mechanism.” Meghan even started a blog the day she was diagnosed. “At first it was simply to share medical updates with my family and friends, but it ended up becoming an online journal, which allowed me to have a safe outlet to share my emotions, whether good or bad,” she says. “The love and support I receive through my blog has become such a huge source of encouragement.”
Meghan’s diagnosis means that she will never experience true remission. “When you are diagnosed with stage IV (metastatic) breast cancer, you may have periods of stability, without disease progression, but there is no cure,” she says. “Living with stage IV breast cancer means I will be in treatment for the rest of my life. It is a very different set of circumstances than someone who was diagnosed with an earlier stage disease.”
As a way to connect cancer survivors in their 20s and 30s, she helped create a young adult support group at the Karmanos Cancer Institute. They meet once a month and talk about personal ways the disease affects them and their families, no matter the type of cancer they had or the stage they are in.
As part of the Susan G. Komen Detroit Race for the Cure, Meghan has also created subgroups for young women and those with metastatic breast cancer. “The first time I attended the race I was a newly diagnosed young woman, and I felt very alone and isolated in a sea of 20,000 people who were all celebrating their survivorship and being cured,” she says. Her groups both raise awareness as well as provide support to specific groups of women who attend the event.
One thing Meghan knows for sure is that cancer patients and survivors have a choice on how they navigate their journey. “I know that I had no choice in getting this disease, but I surely have a choice with how I respond to it,” Meghan says. “There will definitely be many difficult days, so I let myself grieve when I need to grieve – to be sad, angry or frustrated. But then I dust myself off, focus on my blessings and remember that I have still been given this day and need to make the most of it.”
Katelynn, Marjie and Meghan are all members of the Cassie Hines Shoes Cancer Foundation, a support group for young adults in all stages of the cancer journey.
Photo Credit: Many Wonderful Artists