Anna Renault, 67, never seems to slow down. She has written 18 books and compiled eight anthologies, freelances for a local newspaper, gives speeches and connects business owners who can benefit from knowing one another. And, like many Americans, Renault, of Baltimore, is a cancer survivor.
The difference is that Renault has had cancer nine times. As she says, so far, she’s lived to tell about it. In fact, she’s documented her story (minus her most recent diagnosis) in her book Anna’s Journey: How Many Lives Does One Person Get? As she wrote in it, “This [story] could conceivably qualify for a ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not’ item; it is fact, not fiction.”
A Rough Start
When Renault was just 18, she married the local “bad boy.” At the time, she was still in high school, which she says wasn’t unusual then, since many young women got married to young men who were drafted to fight in Vietnam. (Her husband wasn’t among them.)
Renault graduated in June 1969. On New Year’s Eve, she gave birth to her only child, a daughter, Sue. She thought life was good.
But what began happening, as she wrote in her book, is that her husband’s social drinking turned into “problem drinking.” He began using drugs. And then, Renault said, he began abusing her.
“I felt trapped in a bad situation. Domestic violence became my lifestyle — my nightmare,” wrote Renault. She won’t go into the graphic details, but suffice it to say, she ended up in the ER a number of times. When Sue became hysterical at a minor injury that happened to another kid on the playground, Renault knew she needed to take action. She found a lawyer and got divorced.
On Her Own
Renault had been working since 1970 at the Maryland State Department of Education, Division of Rehabilitation Services. After her divorce, she joined a local Parents Without Partners organization. By 1979, she was the group’s chapter president, and by 1981, its zone administrator.
Between this position and her job with the state, Renault gained leadership skills and began doing public speaking, as well as writing. This would help her when she retired in 2001 and began a new journey of writing books, giving talks and helping others network.
The First Cancer Appeared Early
At 27, in 1977, Renault was diagnosed with her first cancer: uterine. But not right away. “My doctor told me that I was too young to have that kind of cancer,” recalls Renault. She knew something was wrong, so she changed doctors and received the correct diagnosis, which led to surgery that saved her life.
In 1982, she was diagnosed with melanoma, which was removed. In ’84, squamous cell skin cancer, also removed. Her other cancer diagnoses and surgeries followed: colon cancer (1994), a second colon cancer (1996), ovarian cancer (March 2005), a second ovarian cancer (September 2005), breast cancer (2009-2010) and metastatic breast cancer (2015).
Many times, Renault lived through dangerous surgeries — in one, she almost bled to death because, she said, the doctor had not noted that she had a bleeding disorder called Von Willebrand disease. Renault also has lupus and heart problems. But no matter what, she has always beaten doctors’ predictions and survived.
That’s not to say it’s always been easy. Renault admits that it’s been a “tough road to travel,” and there have been times when she was really scared. Yet she persists.
“I was very sick in 2015. The doctors and I thought that I’d be lucky to see Christmas that year,” says Renault. After trying various chemotherapy drugs, they found one that stopped the cancer in its tracks.
Her Lowest Point
Despite all her bouts with cancer and everything else she’s been through, Renault says her lowest point came on Jan. 6, 1988 when she arrived home and heard smoke detectors going off. At nearly the same time, the backside of her house exploded. “My house burned down. I was literally standing in the driveway next to my car as I watched everything I owned burn,” recalls Renault.
While she says the next nine months were stressful, Renault prefers to focus on the good that came of it.
“I kept going because I had faith that from the bottom of the pit, the only way to go is up. I prayed,” says Renault. She, her second husband (she had gotten married and would eventually get divorced again) and her daughter were able to live with her aunt, just down the road. Renault’s insurance covered everything, and she got a new home built that she loves.
What Keeps Her Going
Renault admits that prayers and her faith have kept her going over the years.
In addition to prayer, Renault says that great medical care has helped. “The right test, the right doctor, at the right place and at the right time has ensured that I have gotten what I needed when I needed it,” she says. She continued to be covered by her insurance after retirement; that paid for a large portion of her costs.
Despite everything she’s experienced, Renault stays positive. She loves her life and spending time with her grandkids: Theresa, 29, David, 28, and Jeremy, 11.
“This was a childhood lesson I learned early: I can sit and pout or I can be positive and gung ho, making things happen or making them better,” explains Renault. “I found that staying positive made more sense, helped me accomplish more and made me feel better along the way. I don’t know all the ins and outs of brain chemicals, but I know being positive has a great impact on healing better, healing faster, and making life better! Why be miserable? Why be down when there is a better option? Smiling and laughing can make everything a little easier to live with.”
What to Do if You Get a Serious Diagnosis
Since she’s had many difficult cancer diagnoses, Renault shares some tips for what to do if you receive a serious diagnosis:
- Know your body. Know what feels normal. You will recognize when something is not right, and it will assist the doctor in making an accurate plan.
- Always get a second opinion — always. All doctors are not equal. There are some who are more specialized or experienced than others. Find the best one you can for whatever condition you have.
- Learn as much as you can about your disease or condition.
- Always take someone with you to all appointments who can act as an extra pair of ears. She or he will be able to remember what the doctor says when your heart jumps into your throat, your mind spins and you’re not sure what you heard.
On the Road
Renault’s most recent cancer has spread to her bones and other parts of her body. It has no known cure, but can be kept at bay with chemotherapy. “As long as chemotherapy works, I’ll be here,” she says. Her tumor markers increased over the summer, but Renault isn’t stopping. She’s doing the opposite.
During the month of October, Renault is traveling by train across the United States. She’ll be speaking at a cancer conference in California, selling and signing copies of her books in other states and visiting friends she hasn’t seen in years. One of her goals is to see as many of the contiguous states that she hasn’t yet.
“After this trip, I will have seen or visited 46 states. I’m trying to figure out if I can squeeze in a peek at South Dakota to make it 47!” she says.
Besides speaking and signing books, Renault plans to work on more of the Mitzy the Butterfly environmental children’s book series she’s written. She may work on another Anna’s Journey -type book.
“I’m off to see the country — something most metastatic breast cancer patients would never even consider, let alone do,” says Renault. “I am blessed. So, America — here I come!”
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