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Getting Cancer and Getting Over It

Article date: February 6, 2002

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If you wake up and you're alive, it's a great day. Do what you can.

 

"I've always loved life," said Jamie Reno, a 41-year-old non-Hodgkin's lymphoma survivor. "I didn't need this to remind me of what I had. I absolutely did not need this to tell me how great life is and how great my life is. It was totally unnecessary."

Reno is also a San Diego-based Newsweek correspondent, an award-winning journalist and singer-songwriter, and a husband and father.

By all accounts, his life was good. Is good. But it's taken a few turns.

The first one was back in 1996. He was engaged to Gabriela.

"My family was starting to wonder if I was ever going to get married," Reno said. "I just wasn't going to settle till I met the right girl. And boy, did I ever. She's an angel. She's amazing, truly."

Gabriela works at the University of California, San Diego, where she went to college.

She and Reno planned a huge wedding for the next April. One fall day while Reno was running on the beach, he felt a lump on his neck. A couple of months passed before he decided to have it checked out.

In December, he went to an ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT). Then he went to a second one. He had a needle biopsy, and one of the ENTs told him he would have to have surgery to determine whether it really was cancer.

Reno said, the other doctor could tell that "I was kind of talking nasally a little bit — so he put a scope down my nostrils all the way into my sinuses and that's where we saw a very large tumor in my nasal pharynx" Reno said that's where the doctor's assumed the cancer started. "That was when we knew for sure that we were — that I was — in trouble. I was watching it on a screen and I was just freaking out."

As for his fiancée, Reno said, "She was terrified, she was devastated, she was a little confused and didn't know what was going on. It was pretty scary."

"Our next step was to do the surgery," Reno said. "After they determined it was cancer, I was sitting in the recovery room after surgery, still groggy, half awake, (the doctor) came up to me and said, 'yep, it's lymphoma.' Then he said, 'I'm referring you to an oncologist,' and then he walked out."

"And I'm just like, whoa, okay," Reno said. "I was half-awake and I'm like, oh, my God."

Reno had stage IV non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. "I had it all over my body," he said.

Big Plans Turn Bittersweet

Gabriela told Reno she wanted to go through this with him as his wife, not his girlfriend. "We got married December twenty-third, right before I started chemo," he said. "We just went downtown and had a quick little wedding. It was bittersweet —obviously — because we were both really scared and didn't know what was going to happen."

He began chemotherapy in January — "CHOP, really hard core chemo, January to early April," Reno recounted. CHOP is a four-drug combo: CVP (cyclophosphamide, vincristine, and prednisone) and doxorubicin.

"I did five rounds of CHOP and it was really, really bad, "he said. "I got really sick. But it worked. It got rid of the tumors, for the most part.

"Between the chemo and the recurrence, I pretty much got back to normal in many ways," Reno explained. "I was working with Newsweek, and basically trying to get my life back."

"In March of '99, I started getting sick again," Reno said. "I did the scans — CT scans — and the tumors were back."

Reno opted for a clinical trial. "I did a lot of research — which is what I do," he said. "I actually found the Bexxar trial on the Internet."

Reno said he was driven by two things: one, that his doctor might not be fully informed or aware of other treatment options; and two, his prior experience with chemo. "I'm never doing chemo again," he said.

"So I signed up, qualified, went up to Newport Beach and did it," Reno said. "That was in April of '99 and I'm still here. I'm presumably still in remission."

"I Don't Have Time For This"

"I still love life, but if anything, it's made me a little more cynical and a little more angry," he said. "I have a lot of anger in me about what's happened. I try to temper it. I try to contain it, channel it, but I'm human and I'm really, really [ticked] off because I'm young and I have so much going on. I don't have time for this, I just don't have time for this! I just have too many things I want to do."

He wants to write music, and be a dad. But he still plays in an adult baseball league — hardball —and on an over-30 basketball team. "The geezers," he said.

About baseball, Reno said, "When they told me I had cancer, I thought my life was over. I thought I'd never do anything like this again. After you go through all this, you feel this euphoria just being out there again."

His survival is not the only thing that seems miraculous to him. "I was supposed to be sterile from chemo," but he and Gabriela had a daughter, Mandy, who turned two last November.

"She's perfect," he exclaimed. "I'm biased, but she's just absolutely beautiful. She's the sweetest, most beautiful little girl I've ever seen. Every body says the same thing — people that don't even like kids."

"Some days I don't feel so lucky, but I really have been very fortunate in my life," he said. "I've had a great life, I've been given a lot of abilities. I'm really thankful." One of his talents is music. After the recent death of cancer survivor George Harrison, Reno released a song he'd written in tribute to the former Beatle. The song is getting national airplay. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the record will go the American Cancer Society.

"Getting back into remission after my trial and having a daughter is what really got me (writing music again) — I bought a Martin guitar, and started writing and it just flowed out," he said. "I've written over a hundred songs in the last two years. It was all in there, waiting to come out for so many years."

Waiting to do things is not part of his game plan, though. "Enjoy the now," he advised. "Don't live for yesterday or tomorrow, live for right now. If you wake up and you're alive, it's a great day. Do what you can. Sometimes, (if you have cancer) you wake up sick. But do what you can. Being here is cool. It's a lot better than the alternative." "I'm just living my life," Reno said. "Enjoying every day that I can. It's a cliché, but life is such a gift. It's such an amazing thing just to be here. And I'm enjoying every day."