Weeks after a routine mammogram in July of 2015, Renee Shoemaker was diagnosed with Ductal Carcinoma. DCIS is the most common form of breast cancer and is highly treatable when discovered early. But cancer comes with no guarantees and no certain comfort: it is both physically and emotionally devastating — and as a recently single mother with two kids in college, Renee felt the world close in on her.
Shoemaker’s does not make for a dramatic survivor story, not in the traditional sense, but it is her story, both multifaceted and in- tensely life-altering. Shoemaker herself will be quick to tell you that, on the spectrum of conceivable cancer experiences, she “had it easy.” But easy is always a deeply personal notion, so let’s rewind.
Seven years prior to hearing the words “breast” and “cancer” uttered in the same sentence, Shoemaker’s life fell apart. In 2008 her husband of nearly 20 years started drinking heavily. “I mean, he had been a great husband and father for so long,” she says, eyes clouding. He grew increasingly unstable and after five years of constant marital perdition, with no end in sight, she led for divorce, “All I wanted was peace, you know?”
Only two years later, shortly after her 50th birthday, Shoemaker’s mammogram results came back positive. Having had two biop- sies in the past due to fibrous breast tissue, Shoemaker wasn’t particularly worried. The diagnosis, when it came, was an enormous shock, “I couldn’t help but think I could be gone by my 51st birthday.”
Shoemaker harbors a sort of preternatural grace, both modest and gritty. At one point she shrugs and says, “They give you this huge pink bag, materials to study and I’m like…it’s just breast cancer.”
It’s just breast cancer. This is typical Shoemaker what’s a little cancer compared to the heart-wrenching divorce she’d just survived? In some small way, the emotional pain she endured during those years primed her for battle against breast cancer.
The fight was undoubtedly harder than she acknowledges, indomitable as she is, “I thought it would be one surgery, then done,” she says. There was a lumpectomy, and long, exhausting months of radiation. Endless oncologist visits — and the still-daunting medical bills.
For the extent of her treatment at Maine Medical Center, where she is also an employee, she never once took a day off from her work as a nurse. In fact she often went, within an hour’s time, from being a patient in radiation to being a nurse on the cardiac unit where she’s worked for 13 years. It became routine for her to switch roles, and she did it casually, as though such transition were ordinary.
She finished treatment in early 2016 and was put on a Tamoxifen regiment, a drug that forced her body into early menopause.
She will be on it for the rest of her life.
Shoemaker grew up in Madawaska, a small town in northern Maine. Her mom was a homemaker and her dad worked at the mill. It was a postcard of the late 1960s in rural, potato farming Maine. “I have a big family so we were always visiting relatives, there was always family around,” she says.
“Everything felt like a fairy tale!” Indeed a fractured fairy tale was to come, but faith came, too.
“I pray all the time,” she laughs, pointing heavenward. “I feel like I’m on a one-to-one basis with upstairs.”
During the excruciating breakdown of her marriage and all the way through her cancer treatment, her co-workers, the other nurses on ACCU, were paramount to her every day survival, “I don’t know if I could have come out of it like I did,” she says, both crying and smiling, “not without those girls.”
Shoemaker frequently shrugs off the magnitude of her struggles. She looks younger than her 51 years, perky, with long straight hair and a ready smile. She talks often and proudly about her kids, and relishes baking and gardening. Her yard in Windham is lush with spring. She is eager to work her flower gardens, digging and tending to the damp April earth. The spring of her health is also blooming vibrantly. She has not, of course, reached the five-year remission period, but her prognosis is excellent.
She used to run but was waylaid by breast cancer. Recently she started running again and in August she will run Beach to Beacon 10K, a race that takes place annually in Cape Elizabeth. She will take on this race with the same humility and spiritual stamina with which she took on cancer, and the violent storm that preceded it. No doubt she will cross the finish line. Just don’t count on her to tell you about it.