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Taking the fight to cancer: Auburn's Tobias survives unexpected battle

Renee Tobias didn’t anticipate battling cancer, but she has. The Auburn woman, who is winning her bout with breast cancer, will participate in this weekend’s American Cancer Society Relay for Cancer at Auburn Memorial Stadium. - Robert Whale/Reporter
Renee Tobias didn’t anticipate battling cancer, but she has. The Auburn woman, who is winning her bout with breast cancer, will participate in this weekend’s American Cancer Society Relay for Cancer at Auburn Memorial Stadium.
— image credit: Robert Whale/Reporter

Within weeks of Renee Tobias’ hiring by the City of Auburn in April 2008, doctors found cancer in one of her co-workers.

Tobias, an administrative secretary in the planning department, paid attention. She scheduled her own too-long-put-off mammogram.

No big deal, Tobias told herself. No breast cancer on her mother’s side of the family, just on her father’s. That meant no breast cancer for her. Or so she thought.

Then came a Friday evening in June, a doctor’s clumsy phone-side manner, terror.

“Call me,” the doctor said.

It was late when Tobias got the message, and her doctor was unavailable. Needing to know, Tobias demanded that the answering service jolly well make her available.

Bad news over the phone, a gut punch. The tests had revealed a highly aggressive form of Stage 1 breast cancer.

“Shock, absolute shock … numb, absolutely numb,” Tobias recalled of her reaction. “My first thought was for my babies. I have two daughters, ages 33 and 36, and my grandchildren, I’m their only grandmother. My thought was, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to die.’”

Thanks to modern medicine and research and the support of family, friends and coworkers, however, Tobias did not die.

Now, two years on, Tobias, with a post-chemo head of thick, curly hair, will join hundreds as they walk around the track at Auburn High School’s Memorial Stadium to raise money for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life. The event begins today and continues until noon Saturday. Tobias will be part of the planning department’s relay team.

The events begin at 6 tonight with the survivors lap, followed by the caregiver’s lap. At 10 p.m. people will light the luminaria lining the track, bags bearing the names of cancer victims and survivors.

Tobias’ ordeal is still close and she has yet to receive final word from the doctors that she’s in the clear. The tears well up easily.

“The doctors are always watching for something,” Tobias said.

Tobias said she’s angry at cancer for putting her through the wringer.

“I was fearful that besides being dingy, blonde, funny and a fighter, I might also have given my two daughters this gene,” Tobias said. The findings about that are inconclusive.

Then too, Victor, her husband, had recently found out that he had a rare benign tumor on his adrenal gland that had to be dealt with. To the displeasure of her surgeon, the couple agreed to put off her operation until he’d had his.

Doctors performed a lumpectomy on Renee that August, weeks after Victor’s surgery. Cancer cells still appeared on the margins, however, so she had to submit to the scalpel again. This time, surgeons removed a quarter of her right breast.

In October of 2008, Tobias began the first of four rounds of chemotherapy. Rather than lose her hair to the drug, she decided, “being an ornery little cuss,” to visit Main Team Salon on East Main Street and have her hair shaved off.

“I wanted to stay in control,” Tobias said. “It was traumatic. People say it isn’t really about losing your hair, but really, it is.”

She had chemotherapy once every three weeks. On Wednesday night, “I would pump myself full of steroids, take Benadryll and other drugs” for the Thursday chemotherapy at Virginia Mason in Seattle.

“The first treatment was scary, but the second through the fourth were OK,” Tobias said. “They give you good drugs now, so you don’t get the vomiting everybody associates with chemo. You get anti-nausea meds. My first one was really rough in that until they knew how my body was going to react, they couldn’t do anything. So we tried about five anti-nausea meds until we got to the part where what worked for me was a patch and a marijuana pill. Chemo drops your white blood cells really low, and because they didn’t know what my body was going to do, they didn’t automatically give me a shot that builds up your white cells. I had to go low, and they didn’t know what to do the second time around. I was spiking fevers, I wasn’t eating, and I was so nauseated with mouth sores I couldn’t eat, couldn’t drink. I really felt like a truck had hit me.”

One morning she woke up and her eye lashes were gone.

“I said, ‘Where are they, they were here last night?’ Oh, I cried for hours,” Tobias said.

Later she would submit to 15 radiation treatments at St. Francis, twice the radiation in half the time at her request.

Her husband, she said, was a godsend.

“I am a claustrophobic person, and I don’t do MRIs well, so he sat on the other side of the MRI tube holding my hand,” Tobias said.

Co-workers and friends at City Hall helped.

“I had only worked there for two months, so I didn’t have leave saved up. I was petrified. How am I going to pay for this? But so many City people reached out and they were allowed to donate their hours to me, so I had a full paycheck. Tami Bothell, the mayor’s secretary, was wonderful because she had cancer herself. I didn’t know her that well. She came up and said, ‘I’m here, whatever you want,’ and it was so sweet. She found me an unused office and put a little cot in there, and that was my little resting place I could go to. So my lunch hour was spent lying down because of chemo and radiation fatigue.”

Tobias believes strongly in the Relay for Life.

“In 2009, it was a symbol of ending treatments, of having fought a really hard battle,” she said. “Walking in the survivor’s lap said that I had beat it, that I had come out the other end. Also it was because they had a caregiver lap. I had to watch Victor walk around that lap, and it meant more to me because he was such a help. He still isn’t feeling good. He had his major surgery the first of August. I had mine on Aug. 20, 2008. He said later on that it took him about nine months before he felt back to normal. So to walk the race for me is a symbol.”

Tobias offered the following advice from someone who’s been there.

“It’s not just for women. Trust your body. If something doesn’t feel right, keep pushing your doctor until you get a definitive answer,” Tobias said.

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What is the Relay for Life?

The American Cancer Society Relay for Life gives everyone in communities across the globe a chance to celebrate the lives of people who have battled cancer, remember loved ones lost, and fight back against the disease. Teams of people will camp out at Auburn Memorial Stadium and take turns walking or running around the track because cancer never sleeps, the relay is an overnight event.

The Relay starts with a survivors lap, an inspirational time when survivors are invited to circle the track together and help everyone celebrate the victories. The survivors' lap is an emotional example of how Relay participants are creating a world with more birthdays like those of each individual on the track. It is followed by the caretaker's lap, then the teams take to the track.

After dark, the event honors people who have been touched by cancer and remember loved ones lost to the disease during the luminaria ceremony. Candles are lit inside bags filled with sand, each one bearing the name of a person touched by cancer, and participants often walk a lap in silence.

Last, there is a fight back ceremony, where we make a personal commitment to save lives by taking up the fight against cancer.

The goal this year is to raise $142,571. Organizers had aimed to have 65 relay teams on the field, but as of Wednesday they had exceeded this goal with 89 teams. Eight-hundred people had registered to participate, as of Wednesday afternoon, but organizers except more than 1,200.

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Relay at a glance

• What: American Cancer Society Relay For Life

• Where: Auburn Memorial Stadium, 801 Fourth St. NE, across from Auburn High School.

• When: 6 p.m. today to noon Saturday

• Program: Entertainment, activities, luminaries at 10 p.m., on-site fundraisers. Walk laps to celebrate, remember and fight back cancer. Theme: “Saving lives - More Birthdays than you Imagined!” Open to the public. Cancer survivors welcome.

• Information: www.relayforlife.org.

• Assistance: auburnrelay@comcast.net.

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