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Released June 5, 2003
Note: This article first appeared in The Talon, Southern Miss' alumni magazine.

COUPLE CHANGED BY CANCER, "MIRACLE" BABY
By Bonnie Gibbs

HATTIESBURG - Twenty-one days. That's how long Renea and Jeff Foster had been married before the first signs of trouble surfaced.

Off to a rocky start on their first Valentine's Day since their wedding, Renea spent the day fighting not her husband, but relentless flu-like symptoms.

Worsening as the day went on, she went to the doctor, who said it was a stomach virus. However, Renea was still sick two days later, and now severely dehydrated, she was diagnosed again by another doctor - this time with gastroenteritis.

"At this point, all of this made perfect sense," said Renea, who graduated from The University of Southern Mississippi in 1997. "It never occurred to us that it would be anything else."

But it was. As the symptoms intensified, Renea said she could feel her heart racing, as though she could pass out any minute. Jeff rushed her to the emergency room that evening, and doctors immediately began running tests.

The results were quick: Renea was pregnant for the first time - or so doctors thought.

"We were obviously in shock because we had just gotten married," Jeff said. "They said she was pregnant, but there was something wrong. So they were going to do an ultrasound and check a little further."

Before the couple could recover from their first shock, they were hit with a second. The ultrasound found a growth on her right ovary. They determined that the ovary would have to be removed to prevent it from bursting and possibly killing Renea.

While the couple called their parents, Ron and Jackie Dockter and Jim and Wendy Foster, the hospital called in a surgeon. Early that morning she was under anesthesia.

Following the surgery, they were told that Renea wasn't pregnant; instead, there was a grapefruit-sized tumor on her right ovary. Cancer was a possibility, but they remained positive and calm. "I honestly don't remember worrying about cancer because the surgery itself was such a big deal," Renea said. "I was still recovering from that; my mind was totally focused on that. I think that God gave Jeff and me a peace about it. I just put that in the back of my mind and concentrated on feeling better each day and didn't worry about what was going to happen next."

The results confirmed their worst fears: The tumor was malignant and she would have to undergo chemotherapy. "That was probably the most upset I got about the whole thing, and I was probably more upset about the chemo," Renea said. "I felt like they had probably gotten the cancer, but the idea of chemo and all that it entails was the scariest part of the whole thing.

"But after that first day, like I said, we both had a peace about it. We decided that if we could get through the presurgery and postsurgery, we could get through the rest."

Nineteen days after her ovary was removed, Renea began chemotherapy in Baton Rouge. She took an extended leave of absence from her new job and Jeff, a senior at Southern Miss, completed some of that semester's classes but had to withdraw from the rest. Even as the couple's cocker spaniel was sent away to live with Jeff's parents for a while, wedding presents were still arriving at their empty apartment in Hammond, La.

They were both 22.

In the beginning, the chemo wreaked havoc on Renea's body. The weekend after her first treatment, she was weak and nauseated, her spirits flagging.

During this time, Jeff stayed upbeat for Renea, shouldering all of the couple's responsibilities so she could save her strength. "We didn't worry about what was going to happen tomorrow or how she'd feel tomorrow," he said, adding that the couple took the situation day by day.

They didn't worry about their ability to have a baby, however. Having just married, they wanted to wait a few years to become parents anyway.

Chemotherapy finally produced a clean bill of health, although doctors monitored the situation for months. To this day, she continues her semiannual check-ups and remains cancer-free.

Once Renea's health stabilized, the couple bought a home in Baton Rouge, where they both worked. They settled into a "normal" way of life, often spending weekends redecorating their home, traveling, or hosting family and friends.

In early 2001, Renea and Jeff decided they did want to start a family. Despite her previous health problems, the doctors were optimistic about her chances of getting pregnant and carrying a baby to full term. In August 2001, after a few months of trying, Renea suspected she might be pregnant. Because of her medical history, however, she had to approach the situation cautiously optimistic.

"I knew the very first time I was pregnant, it was going to be a little different," she said. "That's because of the type of cancer I had, which shows that you're pregnant because your hTG level is high. I did the blood work, and my oncologist was the one who checked it. They felt like I was pregnant, but of course, they wanted to do an exam immediately, just in case.

"And I was pregnant," she continued, her voice growing soft. "That's what it was. Everything else checked out great."

On her due date - April 4, 2002 - Lola Katherine Foster was born. It was an experience the couple called nothing short of incredible. "We were amazed," Jeff said. "We kept on looking at her. We still do that. We just look at her and think about how lucky we are and how thankful we are."

With the baby turning 1 in April, Renea and Jeff have admitted that, like other new parents, their lives have changed since Lola's birth. "Your time is not your own as much anymore, but she's always slept good since she was born," Renea said. "We've been lucky in that respect. And we look forward, every day, to seeing her when she wakes up in the morning and when we get home from work. She just brings so much happiness and joy to both of our lives, and all of our families and the grandparents. It's just amazing. We can't imagine her not being in our life."

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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM

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