Learning Resilience From My Patient


Retired nurse Jean Reno navigates complex recurrent breast cancer thru optimism, humor, realism, and service to others.

“Doctors want to help you live. Nurses make you want to live.”

—former US Vice President Joe Biden

I have been one of Jean Reno’s oncology nurses since 2015 at University of South Alabama Mitchell Cancer Institute Kilborn Clinic in Fairhope, Alabama. She’s one of my favorite patients. In addition to being her nurse, I am also a fellow patient at Mitchell, in treatment for recurrent endometrial cancer.

Jean and I both receive chemotherapy there every 3 weeks. We share the same great office staff and the same superb medical oncologist, Dr. Daniel Cameron. Jean’s resilience inspires me to feel hopeful through my own recurrent cancer journey. She models the kind of optimism I would like to inspire in my own patients.

Every Thursday, rain or shine, no matter how she feels, Jean, a retired nurse in treatment for breast cancer, arrives for work as a volunteer in our own busy chemo infusion suite. Even when her chemotherapy session falls on one of her volunteer days, she still likes to interact with the patients, serving and encouraging them. Often sporting a brightly colored sundress with white Marilyn Monroe sunglasses and a cherry-colored straw hat, she personifies determination and optimism. The Mitchell Center profiled her on their website, highlighting her good humor and cheerful outlook.1

One of her loves is talking to others about her cancer journey. “I like to go around often without a hat showing off my peach fuzz because it’s freeing and encourages conversation in the store,” she explains in the profile article.1

Jean advocates for women to get their mammograms and diagnostic ultrasounds, and encourages them to be kind to themselves through treatment. She’s positive about her future. “I can still hear my Momma telling me, ‘Jean Ann, folks don’t want to see you frown. When you smile you actually feel better and it lights up your face.’…I know it’s going to be ok. If it’s not ok, I’ll deal with it. If I can’t do something about it, there’s no sense in me worrying about it. That is a complete waste of my time.”1

Her breast cancer journey enters its 5th year this February. Through it all, she has endured years of chemotherapy, surgeries, and personal hardships including the loss of her soulmate and husband, Ron, in 2002. They were married for more than 28 years.

My husband Ben and I with Jean (right) as I rang the bell completing 3 months of chemotherapy.

My husband Ben and I with Jean (right) as I rang the bell completing 3 months of chemotherapy.

Jean declares that our office staff lightens her load and the feeling is indeed mutual. She delights in making all of us there happy. Though her appetite isn’t always great, she relishes in cooking up and sharing platefuls of her scrumptious homemade goodies with us and with fellow patients during her weekly office volunteer day.

My husband Ben and I were so very honored to have Jean by our side last October, cheering me on, as I rang the office chemo bell signifying my completing 5 months of challenging chemo prior to starting maintenance phase chemo. Approaching the 2019 New Year, I wondered how I might continuously renew hope in my future intertwined with recurrent cancer. My answer is faith in God, family, and friends.

Since 2015, Jean Reno has been teaching me by her example as a true “overcomer” that the gift of illness is living in the moment and seizing the day. Mundane events take on a sparkle. Things I love, and should love, become clearer and brighter. This is transcendence with the past, present, and the future experienced together in moments where I can see flickers of eternity through Jean’s positive persona and gifts of service to others. God Bless you, Jean, and thank you so much for sharing your gifts! You’re helping me to grow so much in my dual citizenship role as an oncology nurse and fellow cancer survivor.

My journey through chemotherapy this second time around would have been a whole lot harder without Jean’s empathy for me as a fellow patient and her up-close, personal knowledge of some commonalities we shared during treatment.

As an oncology clinic nurse, I impart to my fellow patients the life lessons I’ve learned from Jean over the years. Lessons of hers that I try to give to my patients, especially to those who are struggling in the moment, include her persona to overcome adversity, her rah-rah spirit, determination, collegiality, and her attitude of resiliency, in that she does not allow circumstances to intimidate her greatly. We became oncology nurses to skillfully guide our patients and their caregivers through their own cancer journey. It’s not about us; it’s about them. Isn’t that how it should always be?

As nurses we’re excellent caregivers. Let us think about that care. The work always gets done somehow. Perhaps we must first redefine the work. The most important activity, the most beneficial for everyone involved is to truly be there for someone. Let us give the greatest gift of all---the gift of ourselves.

----Sandy Schafer, RN, MSN, AOCN. President, Oncology Nursing Society President 1993


  • Survivor profile: Jean Reno faced breast cancer with optimism, humorMitchell Cancer Center online article. usahealthsystem.com/body-mitchellcancerinstitute.cfm?id=5152&action=detail&ref=246. Posted August 28, 2018. Accessed October 1, 2018.

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