Resilience and Reinvention
Strength, faith and self-advocacy win the fight
When people see Renee Davis strutting down a fashion runway or gracing the pages of a four-color magazine spread, they don’t realize she’s a model for much more than the latest clothing or hair style. She’s an exemplar for strength and resilience in all areas of life.
Renee came through her cancer diagnosis, lumpectomy, and about two months of radiation treatment with great aplomb. When she heard that her doctors wanted to remove the tumor, her first response was not fear, anger, or self-pity, but rather positive action. “Good,” she said. “Let’s knock it out.”
Part of Renee’s strength comes from watching her mother struggle with cancer for years. It started when Renee was five or six years old. Her mother was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a blood cancer. “They didn’t expect her to live,” says Renee, but she beat it back.
A decade later, when Renee was in high school, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and was treated with a double mastectomy. Again, she came through ok. But about ten years after that, the breast cancer came back in the residual tissue. “My mother was such a miracle,” says Renee. “She recovered from such massive trauma.”
About 15 years after her second round of breast cancer, Renee’s mother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma on her skull, to which she ultimately succumbed. “She was just tired of fighting,” Renee explains; her mother had been fighting the disease for almost three decades. “I understood that.”
Thanks to her mother’s example, Renee had always been good about doing regular breast self-exams. “Not that I was always consistent with it,” she concedes. “But I was always on it. Especially when I developed fibrocystic breasts.”
One day, in 1999, Renee felt a new lump. She wasn’t worried at first because having fibrocystic breasts meant she periodically had to have a lump checked out. “I’d had quite a few fine needle aspirations and a few surgical biopsies,” says Renee. “It kind of became commonplace.”
This time, though, was a little different. A very spiritual person, Renee heard in her spirit, ‘this one is cancer, but it won’t kill you.’ Renee found the message reassuring. “I had so much peace about it,” she explains. Her mother’s example plus Renee’s own faith gave her confidence that she’d be ok.
But that’s not to suggest that having breast cancer was easy for Renee. First of all, the timing was horrible. She had recently lost her job in marketing after fifteen years of working for the phone company. She had no income and no health insurance. “My unemployment and savings had long since run out,” she explains. “We almost lost our apartment and we had to give up our car.” She was doing long-term temporary work to get by.
In fact, financial concerns – not medical ones – were what Renee first thought about when she heard she had breast cancer. “How am I going to pay for this?” she asked herself. In the end, she went to Grady Memorial Hospital, a community hospital in Atlanta. She credits Grady and its Avon Foundation Breast Health Center with helping defray the cost of her treatment.
Related: Financial Assistance For Breast Cancer Patients
To top it off, Renee also found herself struggling with depression during this period. “A lot of survivors struggle with depression,” Renee says. “But my depression had nothing to do with breast cancer. It had to do with unemployment.
“I struggled with my self-esteem and self-confidence,” she remembers. “I was diagnosed with clinical depression – but I didn’t have the money to go to a psychiatrist.” Fortunately, she was able to get mental health services through the county. “It was a terrible time in my life,” Renee says. “I look back on it and think – how did I get through that?”
She believes her faith – and her mother’s faith – pulled her through. “God just kind of builds you up and sends people in to your life to help you get through this. Mom’s faith strengthened my faith.”
Renee believes in passing along the help that was given to her. “I really believe that whatever we go through, we can reach back and help someone going through the same thing,” says Renee. “I believe it is our responsibility.”
To that end, Renee has become involved with Grady’s Avon Foundation Breast Health Center. She’s done some outreach through mailings and at the mall, but what is particularly important to Renee is talking one-on-one with women. One time, her doctor asked her to speak with a newly diagnosed woman who was very upset – the doctor was afraid she wouldn’t come back for treatment. “She looked at me and stopped crying and her eyes got big and she said, ‘You’re so beautiful,’” Renee remembers.
Renee gave her a big hug and told her, “Cancer does not discriminate. If you have breasts,you are susceptible to cancer.” The woman nodded her head. “Now, what you have to do is to tell the cancer that you’re the boss of it – it’s not the boss of you.” Renee emphasized that it was important to return for treatment. “You can’t let fear control you because you can beat this,” she said. “But you have to make the decision to do it, you have to make the decision to work with the doctors, you have to make the decision to take your medications.” The woman stared at Renee. “Can you do that for me?”
The woman laughed, hugged Renee, and agreed to fight for her life.
Along the same lines, it has also meant a lot to Renee to become involved with Amoena. Its products, she says, can really help a woman going through cancer treatment and survivorship. She only wishes they’d been around for her mother.
“I remember the whole process where she lost her breast and she would try to wear a bra and put panty hose in it to simulate breasts.” This was before Renee’s mother got a prosthesis. “When she got her prostheses, they were heavy,” says Renee. “They would pull on her shoulder.”
Remembering her mother’s experiences makes Renee grateful for Amoena’s products. “They come in different shapes – and they’re so light,” says Renee. “I wish my mom had had these things.” By modeling for Amoena, Renee is able to spread the word to other women who can benefit from the products.
Role Model for Graceful Aging
Renee has not been one to let the natural aging process slow her down, or keep her out of jobs typically held by younger people.
When Renee was 40 years old, her daughter was on the teen board at a local mall. Renee took her daughter to a fitting for a back-to-school fashion show and the producer took one look at Renee and asked her if she modeled.
“The thought that went through my head was PAYCHECK,” Renee remembers. “Yes, I can do that,” she told the producer. So she began at the mall, then moved on to modeling for department stores. Eventually she was hired by a national modeling company in both fashion and commercial divisions. That’s how she got involved with modeling for Amoena.
Renee also remarried at midlife. “Who’d have thunk it,” Renee wonders. “I wasn’t looking for it. I never thought I’d remarry, but here comes this wonderful man and I’m 51 years old.” Now she has five daughters, two biological and three ‘bonus’ girls. “I think my story is an encouragement to so many women.”
Recently, Renee has embarked on yet another career generally geared to the under-50 crowd. She’s become a flight attendant.
Her husband got a promotion, which took them from the Atlanta area to Washington, D.C. “I decided to apply for some customer service jobs at the airport – and then I got carried away and started applying for flight attendant jobs. Why not?” she thought.
She didn’t get any calls for the customer service jobs – but she heard from Delta and Express Jet for the flight attendant positions. “I asked them, do you know how old I am?” These days, Renee juggles a lot of hats: modeling, mothering, and traveling around the country.
Role Model for Self-Advocacy
When Renee was at Grady, she was sometimes seen by residents from Emory University School of Medicine and sometimes from residents from Morehouse School of Medicine.
The day she came to have her lump checked, she saw a female resident from Emory. “She kept poking me but she couldn’t find the cyst,” says Renee. “I was getting sore and swollen and she just kind of raised her hand nonchalantly and said, ‘well, why don’t we just watch this for six months’.” Renee remembers. But Renee was sure it was cancer. “Thank you very much,” Renee told the doctor. “But I’m not waiting six months.”
“So I got up from the table and went to the nurse who I always deal with and said, ‘When are the Morehouse doctors coming?” The nurse told her they’d be in on Friday, so Renee made an appointment for then. At her Friday appointment, the Morehouse doctor did the biopsy, found that it was cancer, and scheduled a lumpectomy.
When it comes down to it, Renee is not only a beautiful woman, but she is also strong, independent, and passionate. Yet, she doesn’t see herself as amazing; she believes that all cancer survivors are impressive.
“I think so many breast cancer survivors are role models because we didn’t just lay down and die,” says Renee. “We fought our way through, no matter how difficult it was.” And, like Renee, survivors go on to live rich lives after cancer.
For other stories from women who've been through breast cancer, check out these:
Erika: What Does Chemo Feel Like?
Jackie: Let's Talk About Breast Cancer