At first Renee Branem thought a takeout dinner had left her with a bad case of food poisoning.
But when her stomach cramping and vomiting wouldn’t stop, her husband, Matt, drove her to the emergency room at Novant Health Huntersville Medical Center. A 3 a.m. CT scan revealed a frightening picture: She had a tumor.
The tumor had ruptured and attached to the back of her abdominal wall, which caused the severe pain and vomiting. She was just 33, the mother of a toddler, and had colon cancer spreading through her body.
“I was in complete shock—and wondered, ‘Why me?’ — I never thought something like this could happen to me,” she said. “But then my fighting side came out, and it became a question of, what do we have to do to beat this?”
Now nearly four years later, Branem is cancer-free and wants to help others who are fighting the disease. She’s active in a variety of colon cancer support efforts and shares her story in hopes that she can inspire people to take control of their health and not ignore signs that something’s wrong.
“Renee is a star, she’s doing phenomenally well,” said Dr. Timothy Kuo, a hematology and oncology specialist at Novant Health Lake Norman Oncology who treated Branem. “She’s made lemonade out of lemons and has been a real advocate for the issue.”
Kuo says Branem’s case is unusual because of her age. The vast majority—about 90 percent—of colon cancer patients are over 50 years old. “We always recommend that people get a screening colonoscopy at 50,” he said. “But it’s also important to be aware of your own body, and if something feels wrong, get it checked out.”
Before her diagnosis of stage 3 cancer, Branem had felt extremely tired. She figured it was because she was a busy mother and wife who also worked part-time at a clothing boutique. She craved ice and would chew it — a habit she thought was a little quirky. Later she found out that was a sign of her extreme anemia — which she didn’t know she had.
Kuo said anemia is common in colon cancer patients, and usually brings debilitating fatigue. Other symptoms can include changes in bowel habits and stool characteristics. Severe abdominal pain is less common, and can occur when the colon perforates and spills bacteria into the abdomen, which can present a life-threatening situation, he said.
“Going to the hospital saved my life,” Branem said. “If I hadn’t gone, it would have continued to spread.”
She had surgery to remove the tumor and spent 11 days in the hospital. After she recovered from surgery she went through 12 rounds of chemotherapy and 36 radiation treatments — a tough load lightened by the care she received, and the support from her family and friends.
“It was such a blessing that I could get all of my treatment at the Novant Health Huntersville Medical Center, which is close to our home,” she said. “Everyone was so attentive and the nurses in oncology were so sweet.”
Emotionally, the toughest part was spending so much time bedridden when her daughter, Lexia, was just 2 years old. “That was so hard, but she gave me the strength to fight, and to get out of bed. She was my little sunshine,” Branem said.
Lexia’s now five, and Branem works hard to stay healthy. She eats “clean’’ minimally processed foods, including smoothies packed with healthy ingredients. She also exercises regularly and rests when her body needs it.
Branem volunteers for and runs in the Colon Cancer Coalition’s annual “Get Your Rear in Gear,” 5K in Charlotte — an event that raises awareness about the disease and money for screenings and research. In 2016 she received the coalition’s Sue Falco Determination Award.
Branem has inspired others to get a screening colonoscopy — and a few ended up having pre-cancerous polyps removed.
When she thinks back to her treatment, Branem remembers all the encouragement. One nurse gave her a prayer angel, others would hug her and tell her everything was going to be OK.
“And it is. I’m alive, I’m well and doing great. I live every day to the fullest.”
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