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FAIRHOPE, Ala. -- Dressed in a brightly hued sundress, cherry-colored straw hat and white rimmed sunglasses, Jean Reno personifies positivity and joy.
“These are my Marilyn Monroe sunglasses,” the 70-year-old Fairhope woman joked, with a disposition that outshined her outfit.
As she sat to talk with a stranger, Reno shed her hat, exposing a bald head baring the beginnings of silver peach fuzz. “Often, I like to go without a hat because it is low maintenance, it is sort of freeing, and it encourages conversation in the store.”
Reno enjoys talking to others about her cancer journey.
Although she could legitimately feel sorry for herself, she does not get down about her diagnosis or her daily struggle. Instead, the retired nurse views her breast cancer battle with a refreshing realism, optimism and humor.
“I can still hear my momma saying, ‘People don’t want to see you frown, Jean Ann. When you smile, you actually feel better, and it lights up your face,’” she said.
Reno has smiled throughout her breast cancer journey that began in February 2015, when she discovered changes in her left breast. “I noticed a lump, but I did not notice it all the time,” she said. “It was not painful, and I should have been worried, but I let it go.”
Touching her forefinger to the tip of her thumb, she formed a circle illustrating the diameter of the discovery. “It was a pretty good size,” she said. It wasn’t until five months later that she realized she could no longer write the lump off as fibrous breast tissue.
“I generally did not look at myself after getting out of the shower, but on this day I did, and I said to myself, ‘Is that a dimple I see?’” Reno said. “As a nurse, I knew right away I had to have a mammogram and a diagnostic ultrasound.”
Reno rarely went to the doctor, and it had been 15 years since her last mammogram. The mammogram revealed a tumor, and the diagnostic ultrasound showed two more tumors that the mammogram did not. A biopsy was scheduled for a Wednesday, and the results were expected the following Friday. By Monday, Reno still had not heard anything. She called the doctor’s office to confirm what she suspected.
When the doctor and nurse weren’t available, a young woman anxiously attempted to deliver the news. “I told her, ‘Let me make this easier on you. I have cancer,’” Reno told her. “I knew what they were going to say. It wasn’t that I needed them to tell me I had cancer. I just needed to get this process started, get it going further down the road.”
The next day, she met with Dr. Daniel Cameron, oncologist with Mitchell Cancer Institute - Fairhope. Reno had no family history of breast cancer. She showed no genetic markers for the disease, but was told she was in Stage 3 and that her diagnosis was complex.
“If you could name it for a breast cancer, it was in there,” she said. “I asked Dr. Cameron, ‘We are all going to die, but am I going to die from this?’ and he said, ‘No, not from this.’”
Reno started chemotherapy in August 2015. A scan in November revealed the tumor had not shrunk, so treatment became aggressive. She was given adriamycin and cytoxan.
“When I asked why only two drugs, the doctor said, ‘Because they are very powerful, and you will be very sick,’” she said. “He said this was a last ditch effort.”
Reno said she hardly remembers the holidays, but that she had never been sicker. “I do remember wearing an AC/DC shirt to the hospital because those were the medicines I was on,” she said, laughing. “I only remember it because there is a picture of me in the hospital wearing that shirt.”
The new chemotherapy combination was shrinking the tumor. And when it was time for Reno to undergo a mastectomy in January, she chose another aggressive move: a double mastectomy.
“I wanted to remove both breasts,” she said. “I just knew that if I did not do both, the other one would have cancer in three to four years.”
In February, Reno started back on Herceptin, which she will continue to receive in a triple dose every three weeks until her treatment ends in February 2017. The toughest part of treatment has been fatigue, memory loss, losing her sense of taste and undergoing treatment without her husband, Ron, who died at age 50 in 2002 of a massive heart attack.
“I miss him and really would like to have him around right about now,” she said. “We were married 28 years, five months and one day.”
Reno said the staff at MCI Fairhope lightens her load, and she delights in making them happy.
“I feel like I am part of the staff,” she said. “The nurses are so sweet. They are always so upbeat and smiling. You couldn’t ask for a more dedicated group of nurses.”
Reno bakes treats every three weeks for the MCI staff. She plans on surprising them with a peach dump cake and homemade crema gelato during her next treatment. “They deserve something, and I enjoy cooking for them,” she said. “I have an excuse to bake once a month.”
Reno loves doing for others. Born in Mobile and raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, she was blessed with four children and seven grandchildren. After returning to Fairhope in 1988 to be closer to her aging parents, Reno worked as a nurse at several hospitals in the area. “I was in labor and delivery for 20 years. Then I spread out and did everything from post-operative care to urology,” she said. She also worked at Mercy Medical from 1993 until December 31, 2001. She later worked as a travel nurse in California; Nantucket, Massachusetts; Jackson, Mississippi; Montgomery and Honolulu. She returned home to Fairhope in 2010 to retire.
“I just decided I did not want to work anymore,” she said. “I was tired.”
Today, Reno - who will model in the Think Pink Tea on October 6 - advises women to ask for mammograms as well as diagnostic ultrasounds. She said women going through treatment should be kind to themselves. She also said she feels positive about her future.
“I know everything is going to be okay. If it is not okay, I will deal with it,” she said, flashing a wide smile. “If I can’t do something about it, there is no sense in worrying about it. That is a complete waste of my time.”
The Think Pink Tea will be held Thursday, October 6, from 4-6 p.m. at the Alabama Cruise Terminal. To RSVP for this free event, call 251-445-9691. It is sponsored by USA Mitchell Cancer Institute and USA Children's & Women's Hospital.
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