“My parents have always been straightforward with me. They never kept anything from me.” But then again, you can’t tell a 3-year-old everything is fine when they have a long, surgical scar on their chest, and you can’t tell a 3-year-old child they have Stage IV neuroblastoma and hope to elicit an understanding nod.
Jeff Renner (’15) doesn’t remember much of the pain from his treatment, which he describes as a “blessing” but his treatment and the impact it had on his family and on himself, that he cannot forget.
However, neither does he want to forget it. “I feel that to not be open about the cancer is wrong, it’s denying part of who I am,
“I want to be open about it and go out there and strive for excellence, tell the people that have the disease that it can get better. You can excel in academics, you can make friends, you can play basketball, you can do all these things – so don’t just give up.”
As a 2-year-old, Renner cried all the time; he seemed sulky. However every time his mother gave him painkillers, he would become happy again. After numerous trips to a doctor, who thought he was just a moody child, Renner was diagnosed with neuroblastoma – a rare tumor that usually afflicts children, spawning from the adrenal glands.
It wasn’t the first cancer in the family: A few years earlier, Renner’s older brother, then 6, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He was going through treatment around the time when Renner was diagnosed. Today he is a role model for Renner, having survived his tumor and excelling in a Master’s Degree in history at St. Andrew’s University.
The cancer resided on the adrenal gland, sitting on top of Renner’s kidney, and by stage IV it had spread to the kidney, liver, bones and other organs. In the hospital, diagnosed then, the doctors told Renner’s family that the child would have nine months to live if he didn’t receive treatment, a treatment which only promised a 40 percent chance of survival.
So, the treatment started. “I think that if you look at the treatment, and everything I went through, and you track my progress medically and the state I am now, I think it’d be almost impossible to say there’s nothing miraculous about all this. Human beings are just not designed for all this,” he said.
What Renner is referring to is the radiation treatment he underwent, the “surgeries – obviously they cut me open,” and the chemotherapy he received. “Chemo is basically poison. It poisons the person’s body, it kills the bad stuff but also kills the good stuff. I was getting adult doses.” Of the 10 children that went in for treatment, only four survived, including Renner.
Of the four survivors, Renner confirms he’s probably one of the luckiest for coming out the most intact. “I was supposed to be taller, big whoop. I’m 5’4”, I can live with that,” he said.
“The other kids who went through the treatment with me came out with their hair really light and thin, all under 5 foot. You can see their scalp. They’re very small and fragile. But my hair came back long and nice,” Renner said, smiling cheekily. “I like to think so.”
His nine months of treatment are a vague memory, but Renner still remembers some of the things that made him smile – which he believes are quite trivial, being at the age when “a rock could be your best friend.” Beyond the Nintendo-64 most children cherished like a pirate’s booty, his fellow patients and himself improvised with what toys were around them.
The Intravenous stands (IV) were some of those toys, on which the kids’ chemotherapy was being dispensed from. Their recreation of “Mario Kart”, minus the explosive turtle shells, was “IV racers. So we were on IV stands, we’d hop on it and people would push us around. We were so small we could stand on it, and we would have races,” Renner said.
Years after sailing to victory on medical equipment, Renner still endures some of the risks of§ the treatment. Beyond being at risk for skin cancer, Renner has hearing aids for hearing loss he received as side effect from some of the drugs.
What’s special about Renner’s recovery is that that’s it: Renner underwent months of surgery, ingesting some of the most potent drugs developed and experiencing intense radiation, but all he has lost is a few inches and some hearing. “I don’t want special treatment. I want to prove myself,
“I don’t know if I can say whether I’d live without neuroblastoma or not. Yes, it is who I am, but it’s also all I’ve ever known,” he said. After his treatment, Renner became an avid basketball player, and a talented one too. But his mother knew that eventually he would run into growth problems, thereby limiting his dedication to the sport. Though he still plays basketball, he isn’t devoted entirely to it.
“The condition did make some decisions for me, but I don’t see it as a soft spot in my history: It’s part of me.
“Would it be nice to be taller? Yeah. Would it be nice not to have hearing aids? Sure, I’m not going to deny that, but it’s who I am.”
Renner stressed that however important cancer might have been in defining him, and however central people might think cancer was to his identity, he is still Jeff Renner, a boy who happened to go through cancer. “I wouldn’t say [cancer] is the number one defining thing [about who I am]. I am Christian, I define myself based on my faith. If you wanted to know who I am, I would be talking about my faith and what I stand for rather than what I went through, though that is something I would mention.”
Christianity, for both Renner and his family, is something they have come to deeply respect, for its community and for its message. During his treatment, the Christian community would often pray with his parents and took care of him like any parishioner.
“My parents would have hundreds of people praying for us, everyone was getting emails about what was going on. To see the community of fellow Christians and to be so invested in this one thing is so moving and hopeful,” he said.
It gave him hope for the future. “Looking back I can look forward with hope, hoping that there’s something I’m destined for, that He has a plan for me.”
But whatever comes Renner’s way, he knows he looks forward to it. Because he’s a human, not just a cancer survivor, as he said, “I want to own my person. I want to prove myself.”