TOLEDO, OH (WTOL) - As we count down to the 25th annual Race for the Cure in downtown Toledo on September 30, we celebrate a woman who has passed the seven-year mark as a survivor.
A fixture at Defiance College, she is giving hope to people who only saw breast cancer as a deadly disease.
Rena Rager had a lot on her mind in October of 2010. Big changes were coming in her life and she couldn't do anything about it. Her son, Andrew, was about to be deployed to Afghanistan.
"It was pretty heart wrenching. He's going into a place that you hear on the news, with soldiers being injured or killed every day," Rager said.
She also knew Andrew would be missing family events and the upcoming holidays. But her life was about to get even harder. A new worry came up that she and her whole family would have to deal with.
"I noticed a spot on my chest, just below my collarbone, that didn't seem right," she said.
Rena had an ultrasound right after Christmas. Her doctor told her it was not just a fatty tumor or a cyst and wanted a surgeon to look at it.
The diagnosis? Breast cancer. Invasive ductal carcinoma.
"I was shocked at first. Because I didn't know what to expect and I'm one of those people that like to know what's going to happen next," Rena said.
Andrew left a week later for Afghanistan and it quickly became a very stressful time for Rena.
But the distance would only draw her and her son closer.
"I decided that we were fighting our own battles and that's what he kept telling me and when he sent me letters, he would say that. You know, we're both fighting our own battles and hopefully we will both win," she said.
And Rena had hope.
With stage 2A breast cancer, that meant the cancer was growing but was still contained in the breast.
She went to the Ohio State University, the best decision she said she ever made.
She endured a lumpectomy and chemotherapy for 16 weeks, always wondering if it was making a difference. At one checkup, she found out.
"I held my breath when I drove to Columbus, and for that appointment. And then once he said everything looks good, then it's, you just kind of take a deep breath and sigh and thank God," she explained. "And then I go shopping."
Rena, now 59, has been cancer free for seven years. She's free to enjoy life with her husband Russ, her son Andrew and daughter Jessica, and granddaughter Andi Lynn.
Her fight now is to save other women.
Through her work at the McMaster School for Advancing Humanity at Defiance College, she has been educating women in Belize, Central America about breast cancer.
Her focus is on women who live in remote villages who saw breast cancer only one way.
"As a death sentence. They didn't know anyone that had ever survived the disease," Rena explained.
That all changed when they met Rena and heard of her battle.
"They wept. They couldn't believe it. They were like, they were amazed that I was, that I was still alive."
The women are now telling women in village after village, that breast cancer is survivable. Rena teaches them about self-exams and provides a list of resources they can access in their own country.
She'll go back to Belize in December to reach out to 16 to 18 year-olds.
It's easy to see why the Race for the Cure in Toledo is in celebration of Rena Rager, a breast cancer patient who wouldn't back down in the face of the disease. And someone who is giving back and saving lives 3,000 miles away.
"It's going to be pretty emotional for me because I get pretty choked up pretty easily, so it's going to be pretty emotional for me I think. It's a big honor. There's a lot of people there. A lot of people looking up to me," Rager said.
Rena goes to Columbus every February for checkups and she urges women to do monthly self-exams and get a mammogram every year.