The first time I talked with Janet Rikard, it was evident we had at least one thing in common.
We met in the fall of 2012 at school pickup – my sons and her grandson and granddaughter attend the same school; her daughter and son-in-law attend church with me and my husband. She and my youngest son share a birthday.
After just a few conversations on that kindergarten playground, Janet and I realized we shared a bond that went much deeper than a shared first name.
It was our stories of family breast cancer that drew us together.
But it was clear to both of us that our paths didn’t cross by happenstance.
The day after I got home on holiday break my junior year of college, I went with my mom to her gynecologist for an exam. She had been experiencing some unusual things on her breast and needed to get it checked out.
The doctor examined her and told her she had nothing to worry about; she just had an infection.
“Go home and take this antibiotic,” he told her. “Put all this out of your mind and enjoy your Christmas.” A precautionary mammogram even confirmed that her condition was just due to an infection.
But Mom knew something was wrong. Her body kept telling her it was.
After a visit with our small hometown doctor, she was on the road the following day to Emory University Clinic in Atlanta where we received the news within an hour following a needle biopsy that she not only had breast cancer, she had one of the rarest, most aggressive forms of it.
At the time, in 1998, inflammatory breast cancer accounted for only 2 percent of all cases of breast cancer. Her chances of living two years were 50/50. But there seemed to be a silver lining in this dark cloud that had suddenly descended on us. Emory had just approved a research protocol for inflammatory breast cancer that increased the dosage of traditional chemotherapy drugs and added in a new drug that offered more promise of fighting the disease.
It would involve 18 weeks of high-dose chemotherapy, a radical mastectomy and lymph node removal, 18 more weeks of chemotherapy and six weeks of daily radiation.
So, Mom agreed to be the guinea pig.
Since I was a semester ahead in college, I took a semester off to stay home with her during treatments. I went with her for every pre-surgery treatment, every test, every blood draw. I learned how to give her shots daily to increase her red blood cell count. I helped her find a wig and hats – a Southern Baptist preacher’s wife and local school teacher wasn’t about to be seen bald in public, thank you very much.
After all of it was finished, she seemed to improve. She seemed to be able to regain her old life – she enjoyed food again, she had energy, she returned to teaching. When the two-year mark rolled by we praised God that she was doing so well.
But after a few years, she began to have trouble doing simple things, even just breathing. She developed a terrible cough. Walking long distances became less and less possible. Finally, after multiple trips to local pulmonologists, and doctors at Emory and Duke Medical Center, it was determined that while the cancer had not returned or metastasized in any way, the treatment itself had slowly and continually caused irreparable damage to her heart and lungs.
Six months later to the day, she left us.
I sat beside her bed in my parents’ home, 10 weeks pregnant with the child that would have been her first grandchild and knew my life would never be the same.
Renee was a beautiful girl from the day she was born. Every picture shows a flawless face with a smile that, it was easy to see, lit up the room. She was “that girl” – the one next door who never met a stranger and didn’t have one best friend, but many. After graduating from Gilbert High, Renee went on to graduate from the University of South Carolina with a bachelor’s and then a master’s in social work.
Just a couple of years after marrying the love of her life, Mark Pitchko, Renee gave birth to her first daughter, Gabrielle, known as Brie. Just two years later, at age 30, Renee became pregnant again.
Life was good.
But one day during her pregnancy, Renee noticed a change in her breast. Her doctor attributed it to changes in breast tissue that take place during pregnancy. Still, as a precaution, he sent her for a mammogram and ultrasound.
Immediately thereafter, the doctor determined that Renee had a malignant tumor and, at six months pregnant, she went into surgery the following day for a radical mastectomy.
“My knees buckled and I almost dropped the phone when that call came,” Janet said. “When I got to the hospital and walked into her room, there was my sweet, beautiful, fragile daughter needing assurance that her mother could make everything alright. … I held her as though she was that tiny baby I had given birth to 30 years earlier.”
The cancer was aggressive and Renee was told she would need chemotherapy and radiation but that those would have to wait until after the birth of her child. On June 7, 1999, Renee gave birth to her second daughter, Samantha Grace. Renee immediately started chemotherapy and the family tried to function as normally as possible.
Janet began to focus on planning a celebration for Renee’s one-year anniversary as a cancer survivor. But that celebration was never to be.
Test results in early March revealed a small tumor on the brain as well as larger tumors on the liver. After that, things seemed out of control, Janet said.
“Her energy level seemed to decline daily, she had no appetite and she was too weak to get out of bed most days,” Janet said. “She could only spend time with her girls when I took them to her bed – she was unable to pick them up or hold them on her own.”
On June 25, 2000, Renee’s pulse was so low she began to lose consciousness. Janet and Mark rushed her to the hospital. Yet as the emergency room doctor admitted Renee to the hospital, he assured the family that Renee’s condition was not terminal, Janet said.
However, test results and a visit with Renee’s oncologist two days later told a different story.
“I walked from her hospital room over to the doctor’s office to check on her test results and also line up extended care for when Renee would go home, but when I saw him walking toward me I knew the news was not good,” Janet said. “He told me that her time was running out and that she only had about two weeks to live.
“There are no words to describe that feeling. I kept praying for God to take me instead and not my sweet girl.”
Five days after being admitted to the hospital, Renee passed away.
So much changed in my life in the nine years since losing my mom.
I went through my first pregnancy without her to see my growing belly and attend my baby showers. I delivered my son without her there; then gave birth to another son three years later.
Much has changed for Janet, too, in the 15 years since losing Renee.
Renee’s husband and daughters moved to New Jersey; Brie, the oldest, just graduated from high school and started college this fall; Janet’s daughter Jennifer married and has two children of her own.
Through our time together, we have learned more about the things we share. My mother died while I was expecting my first child; Renee was diagnosed while she was pregnant with her second child and died less than a year later. We aren’t certain but we believe, based on their symptoms, that my mom and Renee may have even had the same form of rare breast cancer. The daughter that Renee was pregnant with when she was diagnosed was named Samantha and is called “Sami” by her family. My mother’s name was Sammy (yes, much to her chagrin with a “y” after my grandfather). Mom and Renee both had November birthdays.
It seems every time we talk, we learn something new.
Janet will never replace my mother; I will never replace Renee. That’s not what our relationship is about. It’s about a friendship that brings with it a comfort that, quite frankly, isn’t present in any other relationship in my life.
If not for Janet, I wouldn’t have those conversations or receive those phone calls, handwritten notes and texts that come with a motherly type love and concern that she shows me. Don’t get me wrong – my father, brother and husband, sons and girlfriends have been an incredible support system for me through the years.
But they all know how much I have needed my mom and a mother-like figure in my life.
Janet’s daughter, Jennifer, was only 23 when her sister died. In addition to struggling with the loss personally, she has watched her mother experience the loss of a child.
“My mom is an amazing woman and has always put others ahead of herself. To this day, she still does,” Jennifer said. “I think one thing that helps is her support system. We have always had a close-knit family. She and I talk every day and she has been married to my father for 50 years.”
Renee’s friends still stay in touch with Janet and Jennifer, something that has comforted them both.
“And then there are new friends – the friends that can share stories and can make connections and sympathize the way no one else can,” Jennifer said. “Those are the ones sent from above. Those are the friendships our loved ones had a hand in creating.
“While a mother can never replace her lost daughter and a lost daughter can never replace a mother, that huge hole, that huge gap left in the heart can begin to be filled through these mother-like and daughter-like relationships. Those are the ones I thank God for.”
By the numbers
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, no matter your race or ethnicity, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In South Carolina
▪ Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among women
▪ South Carolina ranks 15th in the nation for breast cancer deaths.
▪ There were 3,395 new female breast cancer cases diagnosed and 641 deaths during 2013 in South Carolina. Lexington County had 190 new female breast cancer cases and 35 breast cancer deaths in 2010.
Rate of S.C. women diagnosed with breast cancer
▪ 127 to 141 per 100,000 (only nine other states have a rate in the same range).
*Source: 2012, U.S. Centers for Disease Control
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web site, in 2012, the most recent year available:
224,147 women and 2,125 men in the United States were diagnosed with breast cancer.
41,150 women and 405 men in the United States died from breast cancer.
Source: U.S. Cancer Statistics Working Group
Awareness events: Columbia’s Walk for Life
The Walk for Life will be held Jan. 9 at Finlay Park.
The annual event, one of the Midlands’ largest annual walks, originally was set for Oct. 17 but was rescheduled because of flood recovery. The walk raises money in the fight against breast cancer.
The Palmetto Health Foundation, which presents the event, said individual registration is open at WalkForLifeColumbia.org.
Team captains and individual walkers/runners are encouraged to pick up shirts and wear them to the S.C. State Fair for free admission Oct. 25.