Cindy Kauser (left) and Rena Rager have been friends for years and will be two of the leaders of this year’s American Cancer Society Relay For Life Survivor’s Lap. The Relay will be held June 2-3 at the fairgrounds in Paulding. Judy Wells/Paulding County Progress
Cindy Kauser (left) and Rena Rager have been friends for years and will be two of the leaders of this year’s American Cancer Society Relay For Life Survivor’s Lap. The Relay will be held June 2-3 at the fairgrounds in Paulding. Judy Wells/Paulding County Progress


Feature Writer

When Rena and Russell Rager’s son, Andy, was deployed to Afghanistan in January 2011 with the U.S. Army Reserves, Rena thought she’d go crazy worrying about her only son.

“I was overwhelmed with all those feelings one has – anxiety, worry, fear – when a child is going into a war zone,” she said. “It was something all mothers dream about, but only in nightmare mode. I prayed God would give me a hobby or something to take my mind off the situation Andy would be in for the next year.”

And, as always, God was listening. But instead of giving Rena a hobby, he gave her breast cancer.

“Seven days after Andy left, I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma,” she said. “I’d just started a new job as administrative assistant at Defiance College’s McMaster School for Advancing Humanity, my son had been deployed overseas and my world was spinning out of control.

“I try not to think too much about the whole treatment process because it was such a bumpy road,” Rena said. “From a one-week hospitalization after my first chemo treatment, to hair loss, vertigo, aching joints, lymphedema in my right arm and the dreaded trips to Columbus for chemotherapy every-other Friday for 16 weeks, my life as I knew it was changed forever.”

While in the shower, Rena had discovered a small lump just below her collarbone. Following a few tests, her doctor told her the lump needed to come out and removed it at Paulding County Hospital.

“I was prone to lipomas but I knew this one was different when I found it,” she said. “I just had a gut feeling it was cancer. During my chemo in Columbus and my 33 radiation treatments in Bryan, I cried and laughed a lot, but I got stronger physically and emotionally while fighting the disease. I had a great support system, especially my closest friends, my daughter and my husband. But the fight was all mine. And I won big time!”

Rena’s friends took turns sending care packages to Andy while he was deployed, and some of them even drove her to Columbus for her chemo treatments so Russ wouldn’t have to miss work. She says Cindy Kauser was in charge of making sure care packages got sent on time.

“It meant the world to me to know my friends were looking out for me.”

Rena said she learned that life is too short and that every day means something important.

“I learned that I was not working to occupy myself through an early retirement, but I was building a second career,” she said. “I’d worked 30 years for the Paulding County Board of Developmental Disabilities and had just started this new job at the college. I learned that this was not only my fate but my chance to do things, say things, and experience things I had never dreamed of. As the cancer was beaten, I began to take risks and to say yes to a lot of things I never would have in the past. I became a risk-taker of sorts, and that was definitely not in my nature!”

One of those risks came in October 2013, when her boss at the college asked Rena if she knew how to drive a vehicle with a manual transmission.

“My boss and some of the students were getting ready to go to Belize as part of an initiative wherein faculty and students work to improve the human condition with impoverished communities there, and they needed someone who could drive a stick-shift,” she said. “The team was just six weeks from leaving. Normally they spend an entire year working on their projects and getting ready. But my rapport with the students and anticipated driving skills made me a quick shoo-in. If it hadn’t been for my cancer experience, I don’t know if I would have jumped at this opportunity.”

Rena said working in the McMaster office had given her real insight into the plight of humanity around the world and that this was her chance to live life to the fullest.

“I served as an associate fellow that first year and really had a good chance to observe all aspects of the initiative – each of the students and faculty and their research,” she said. “I got to see some of the impact that resulted from previous years. I worked alongside both the Defiance College McMaster School team and native Belizeans. I listened a lot, too, trying to wrap my head around both a place and the people who lived there. A place I never envisioned myself being. We lived in the jungle for about two weeks and worked with small rural villages, isolated from markets, good education, clean water, adequate resources and health care. And my driving was great! The jungle and the awful roads brought out the Indiana Jones side of me!”

While on the trip, Rena said one conversation with a local woman caught her completely off guard.

“The people in these villages thought you didn’t have cancer until you went to the doctor,” she recalled. “They could be sick, but they believed that cancer was something you got when you visited the doctor.”

Rena thought about this concept and wondered what she could do to change it. So the next year, she applied to return to Belize, to work with one of the McMaster students to teach awareness of breast cancer and to train women to do self-exams.

She and the students also worked to develop a network of healthcare providers that would assure the women that if they found a lump or suspected a problem, they could get care and appropriate treatment.

“Even though we researched, gathered training materials and rehearsed our presentation, I was not prepared for what unfolded,” she said. “As I stood in front of all the women in the village – young and old, sitting on narrow benches – in the makeshift health clinic with white walls and wooden shutters, the sun shone in brightly. Some of the men paced outside.

“I told them that breast cancer was survivable and that I was a survivor standing in front of them as proof. I knew this would be difficult for them to grasp, but I didn’t expect them to cry. Each one of them cried as if I’d told them I was going to die. It took a while for them to realize that I had beaten the disease.”

In December 2015, Rena returned to Belize and gave her presentation to the women of another small village. That village was a bit closer to a big city and better health care, but she says the belief was still the same.

“Women there don’t access regular health care, because of costs, lack of transportation or the belief that early diagnosis won’t do any good,” she said. “That is exactly what I hope to change. Interestingly and sadly, a woman of the village known as Miss Patsy had passed away from breast cancer a few months prior to our arrival. I truly had a captive audience. It was Miss Patsy’s 17-year-old daughter who had encouraged the others to attend.”

Rena will return to Belize again this December for the fifth time.

“This show is on the road for as long as it is necessary to spread the word about the benefits of self-exam, early detection and diagnosis,” she said. “Most people are never privy to knowing the purpose for which they endure any of life’s challenges. I’m not certain, but I think maybe I understand the ‘why’ behind my particular struggle with breast cancer. It seems too coincidental that this struggle came when it did, that I took the job at the college, that I felt inclined to go to Belize, that I overheard key conversations about devastating health concerns in a place 3,000 miles away by people with whom I have only recently felt so connected.

“I don’t claim any particular insight and I don’t think of myself as special,” Rena continued. “But if I can speculate about the rationale for why we suffer and survive, then there must be a reason for all of our suffering and survival. And it is a much bigger picture than I ever imagined.”

These days, Rena is in good health and was six years cancer-free in January. She says having cancer, while devastating at the time, has opened up her life and given her opportunities she would never have had.

“My message to all women everywhere – young or old – is to know your own body,” she said. “If something doesn’t seem right, get it checked right away. Cancer is survivable. I’m living proof of that!”

Rena and her friend, Cindy Kauser (see related story), and Kate and Dave Densmore of Oakwood will lead the survivor’s lap at the American Cancer Society Relay For Life, to be held June 2-3 at the Paulding County Fairgrounds.