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She’s Got Sunshine: Finding the Bright Side with Breast Cancer

Renee Bustos at home with sports beanie

In late February of 2020, Renee Bustos of Rock Springs, Wyoming, sat with her husband on a beach in Mexico. On her head was a wig. In her bag were two more.

"I want to go to Mexico with my husband," Renee had told Kirstyn E. Brownson, MD, who was treating her for breast cancer at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI). "Is that a problem after my chemo?"

"Go," Dr. Brownson told her. "Have fun."

After months of fear and uncertainty, Renee was focusing on what she could control. She was in the middle of her customized treatment plan at HCI, which included oncoplastic surgery. This procedure combines a lumpectomy with breast reconstruction in one surgery. It requires a team of physicians—from breast oncologists to plastic surgeons to radiation doctors, and more—to work together.

"I had no hair," Renee says. "But I had three wigs: one for swimming, one for going out, one for a quick throw-it-on and go have fun."

Renee Bustos with her wigs and headwear

Almost exactly a year before, Renee had woken on her fortieth birthday to find a lump in her breast. It didn’t seem too out of the ordinary, and she knew she was at the age to start mammograms. She figured she’d have it examined. Months ticked by. Life ticked by. The lump began to change.

"And I thought, that’s not normal," Renee says. "I told my husband and he was adamant about me calling. He started asking me every day, ‘Did you make an appointment?’ It turns out he saved my life."

Renee visited her OBGYN in Rock Springs and was immediately sent to imaging. A biopsy followed. A week later, she learned she had breast cancer. Renee knew immediately she wanted to make the six-hour round-trip to Salt Lake City for treatment.

"HCI—that’s where I wanted go," Renee said.

Five years earlier, her father had been treated for colon cancer at HCI. "While we were there, everyone was so nice," Renee says. "During his surgery, I hid in a little cubby and cried. And a chaplain came up to me and just prayed with me."

Amid the initial whirl of testing and diagnosis, Renee says there were many days she felt hopeless. That was one of her darkest times, she recalls, because of her fear of not knowing what she was going to do. One of the hardest moments was when she and her husband shared the cancer diagnosis with their children: a thirteen-year-old daughter and a sixteen-year-old son.

"My daughter cried. My son just gave me a big hug and said, ‘It’s 2019. We have so many advancements right now—you’re going to be fine.’"

Renee remembers a turning point when Dr. Brownson diagnosed her cancer’s stage. Together, they made a plan. Renee opted for oncoplastic surgery as part of her treatment. It’s a procedure that appeals to many women because, among other reasons, patients can conserve their breast while removing the cancer, have only one surgical procedure (rather than multiple), and go home the same day with little pain. It’s not for everyone, Dr. Brownson says, but it can be a good choice.

"It’s a way for women to have options. It allows the patient to be in control when they are going through this process. No one wants this disease. No one wants to go through chemo or radiation or any kind of therapy. No one wants to have surgery. It allows patients to have a say in this."

After that appointment, Renee remembers feeling driven.

"I became a woman on a mission. I had spent months of my life worrying about something I don’t have control of—now I would do what I need to and be positive."

That proactive spark meant cooking and freezing meals for her family, easing her bone pain after chemo by taking walks, and even planning the vacation she’d been wanting to take with her husband.

"I’ve always been a really positive person, and having this has made me more positive," Renee says. "There are things I can’t control, but I can control me. I can control how I deal with things. I want my kids to know that whatever is placed on your plate—no matter what it is—fight through it. Be positive. It’s a gift to know how precious life is."

Cancer touches all of us.