If someone had told Relenthis “Ree” Howard a few years ago that she’d battle Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer at 35 years old, she would have told them they were crazy. But that’s exactly what happened. A woman with a unique name and young age continues to battle a unique form of cancer to this day.
It was July 2015 when Howard, of Conway, was sitting on her bed and discovered a lump in her left breast. She knew immediately she needed to see her doctor.
Howard then visited Dr. Balagopalan Nair, an oncologist at CARTI, where an ultrasound was performed and a gray area was discovered in her left breast. A lumpectomy was also scheduled, and after more tests, Nair explained that the cancer was in Howard’s liver, lymph nodes and lungs, and that she had Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.
“I had a lumpectomy and my left lymph nodes removed,” Howard said. “At this time, I wasn’t married, and I had to depend on my kids to help me with my bra. … For that to happen, you never expect it.”
She added that she still has difficulty performing simple tasks such as vacuuming, and if she does too much, her arms will swell.
“You have to adjust your life,” she said.
After her diagnosis, Howard kept asking the doctor if he was sure about the severity of her diagnosis.
“I thought I was going to die,” Howard said. “I was worried about who would raise my kids.”
Howard has two children, a 16-year-old daughter, Kyana, and a 9-year-old son, Devin. Ree is now married to Greg Howard, although she and Greg were in a long-term relationship at the time of the diagnosis.
“Greg and I have been together for 15 years; we just weren’t married at the time,” she said. “He’s been very supportive — above and beyond what I thought he could do, and I’m so blessed to have him in my life. You think no man wants to marry a sick woman, but he’s here, and he’s taken care of me and the kids, and I’m so blessed.”
After a year into Ree’s cancer treatments, the couple were married in June 2016 at her house.
For the following few days after her diagnosis, Ree Howard became secluded. Her initial reaction was to not let anyone except her family know because she was scared herself. It wasn’t until she attended a church service on Sunday where the sermon focused on giving it up to God that she found strength, she said. Howard said that since that sermon, her faith has helped her to persevere through the hard times.
“My 44th round of chemo was this past Wednesday,” Howard said during an interview earlier this month. “I’ve had bad days and a lot of good days, too. If you can beat cancer mentally, you’re good. My kids are at peace with [the diagnosis], and I have a great support system. I go and do my treatments, and I tough it out.”
Howard’s doctor has told her that she will have chemo for the rest of her life, and that was a blow.
“I was like, “Are you kidding me?” but now I’m OK with it,” Howard said. “I’m OK doing what I’ve got to do. I had the genetic testing done, and it came back negative — thank God. I’m not worried about my children. I’ve tried to educate my daughter, and I make sure it’s in her health records so she can be educated.”
Howard is an activist for early detection and beginning to get mammograms at the age of 30 instead of the recommended age of 40. Howard’s vigilance and health focus are the main reasons she’s still battling cancer as well as she is, she said.
“Sometimes it’s hard,” she said, referring to the treatments, medicine changes and scanning for growth. “Around scan times, I’m a little nervous waiting for [the cancer] to shrink. I’ve had a lot of regimens of medicine. I try not to get too emotional about it, but it’s hard around scan time.”
Although Howard’s doctor can’t tell her exactly how many chemo treatments or medicines she has left, Howard’s strength has come from God, she said.
“I’ve always gone to church, and I’ve been given so much strength and peace,” Howard said. “I’m OK here, and if he decides to take me, I’m OK there, too. I just have peace about it.”
Howard has a Scripture that she reads every morning: “Heal me Lord, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise,” — Jeremiah 17:14.
“Getting mental peace from God has been the best thing for me,” she added. Howard attended Race for the Cure earlier this month and had approximately 12 people join her.
“We had a big cookout at the house after the race with pink balloons, and we just celebrated life,” Howard said. “Every year since my diagnosis, they’ve done this.”
Howard has so much thanks in her heart for her friends, family and physicians who have helped her navigate the difficult diagnosis with hope and guidance. She said she is so blessed to have them in her life.
Staff writer Emily Edmisten can be reached at (501) 399-3669 or firstname.lastname@example.org.