A three-time acute lymphoblastic leukemia survivor became a bone marrow transplant nurse and now helps other patients with the same diagnosis.
Joey Renick was 3 years old when he first received a diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). The Missouri native went through three years of treatment before going into remission at age 6.
“I was in remission for almost 12 years,” he said. “So it was a really long time. It was a pretty normal 12 years for me. I was active. I was always in sports, just regular school stuff.”
Renick spent most days of his childhood playing soccer and baseball, going on hikes and fishing. Every summer, he would attend HIS KIDS Cancer Support, a weeklong camp near St. Louis for children with cancer and their siblings. There he met his future wife, Caylee, whose sister had cancer.
In 2011, Renick was in high school when he started to become more fatigued, quickly getting out of breath when exercising. After a follow-up appointment with his oncology team, it was confirmed: Renick’s disease had relapsed.
ALL accounts for 1% of all cancers in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. The risk for ALL is increased in children younger than 5 and then decreases every year until a patient is in their mid-20s. Four in 10 patients with ALL are adults. At the time of his disease relapse, Renick was 18.
“(The doctors) weren’t even sure it was going to be the same exact leukemia because it’s really rare that the same exact one comes back after 12 years of being in remission,” he explained.
His health care team immediately placed him on what he described as a higher-intensity chemotherapy regimen. He was still in high school and distinctly remembers feeling that he was missing out as he scrolled through social media from his hospital bed.
“That was the hardest, just being a young adult and knowing what I should have been doing,” he said. He does remember having some happy moments, including when grade-school friends would visit, which he describes as a “window of time where I felt like I had some normality,” and a luau-themed spring break party that the nurses threw to surprise him.
“I just felt like I was in a nightmare that I was going to wake up from, and everything was going to go back to normal,” Renick explained. “When you’re in high school and even (at a) young college age, you feel like you have all these plans set for you, and then, obviously, the rug’s kind of taken up from underneath you. You can’t really plan anything in life.”
At 20, he went into remission again, then experienced a third relapse at 22 after noticing a swollen supraclavicular lymph node in his clavicle. At the time, he had just started classes at Goldfarb School of Nursing at Barnes- Jewish College in St. Louis.
“That’s when they decided to go ahead and do a bone marrow transplant,” he said. Caylee, who had watched her sister die from cancer, served as a caregiver during this period. At the time, the couple was newly engaged. “She was able to empathize with the situation and really offer me a shoulder to lean on and an ear to listen,” Renick remembered. That was in 2016.
Soon after completing treatment for his third relapse, Renick decided to participate in the 100-mile bike ride with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Team In Training.
“It was pretty emotional at the end because I felt like I really hit a huge milestone that I never thought I would have,” he said of the experience.
In 2017, Renick went back to nursing school, completing his degree in 2018.
Today, Renick, 27, is a three-time ALL survivor who also doubles as a nurse on the bone marrow transplant unit at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
“Coming out of school, I always said I wasn’t going to work with cancer patients. I kind of thought it would maybe hit too close to home,” he said. “But then I just started to realize that my identity really has formed around my cancer diagnosis, and instead of trying to run away from it, I thought I would embrace it.”
As a nurse and cancer survivor, Renick finds that he brings a unique perspective to the table.
“When I tell (a patient that) I’m actually a transplant patient, they almost don’t even believe me. They’re like, ‘You don’t even look like you’ve had cancer three times,’” he said. “I’m like, ‘I know, that’s just the point. You can bounce back.’”
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