As a traveling salesman and mystery author, Chris Renker knows how to close a deal—and weave a tale with a satisfying ending.
But when cancer struck two years ago, he couldn’t rewrite the storyline, or negotiate a non-competitive clause with the disease.
In spring 2014, at age 47, Renker experienced sporadic bleeding with his bowel movements.
“It was very infrequent, just occasional bleeding,” the Ada, Michigan, resident said. “I thought I should get it checked out.”
On July 14, 2014, a colonoscopy revealed a 2-centimeter tumor in his rectum. A CT scan turned up a more ominous plot line—eight large tumors in his liver.
The news struck him like the title of his mystery book: “Clubbed.”
The adjectives and verbs became ugly. Stage 4. Metastasized. Renker researched his condition.
The numbers he found—9 percent survival rate, for instance—left a hole that only the love of family and friends could fill.
“Dr. Brinker is one of the finest people I’ve ever met, both in his skill level as a doctor and as a solid human being,” Renker said. “’I don’t do numbers,’ he said. It’s very unusual for someone my age to get stage 4 cancer, especially colorectal cancer. There are maybe 40,000 cases a year.”
Renker thinks he’s an outlier on that 9 percent survival rate, because of many factors working in his favor. He doesn’t have other antagonist qualities, like advanced age, unhealthy diet and lifestyle.
“You have to remember most of the people in that pool are (age) 60 to 80, overweight, and they eat like crap,” Renker said. “I don’t fit that demographic. I’ve made good choices in diet, exercise and lifestyle. I couldn’t look at that number. It was too depressing.”
Renker underwent four rounds of chemotherapy, then on Oct. 17 had a liver resection.
“They go in and take out all the damaged parts,” Renker said. “The good news was, subsequent CT scans after chemo showed no signs of cancer or tumors in the liver. They took out roughly 60 percent of my liver.”
After that, Renker had another four rounds of chemotherapy, concluding on New Year’s Eve 2014.
His journey wasn’t over.
In January 2015, he started 28 rounds of radiation, every weekday for six weeks, to target the colon and rectum areas.
“The goal of all this was to shrink the tumor as small as possible,” he said. “The problem was, doing a sphincter-saving surgery is very difficult to do when the tumor is that low.”
After radiation, Renker had to wait out a “cooling off” period to give the radiated tissue time to heal.
On June 5, 2015, doctors removed the colorectal tumor.
Dr. Brinker said Renker is progressing nicely and his scans are looking good.
“People are able to be cured from metastatic disease, which is something you didn’t used to see,” Dr. Brinker said. “There were no signs of cancer in his last scan. I’m definitely upbeat as far as the prognosis.”
About 40,000 people in American are diagnosed with rectal cancer each year. The number of people over age 50 being diagnosed has declined by about 5 percent in the last decade.
“For patients like Chris, younger than age 50, we’re seeing an increased rate of 2 percent compared to decades past,” Dr. Brinker said.
He doesn’t know the reason, but it could be because 50 is the recommended first screening age. Factors such as obesity, smoking, alcohol and diabetes could also be contributing to earlier onset.
Dr. Brinker encourages people to pay attention to potential symptoms, such as blood in the stool or changes in bowel habits.
Renker said he’s thankful for the early catch. He’s also grateful for the help of Spectrum Health Cancer Center nurse navigator Tracy Waldherr.
Throughout the ordeal and to this day, Waldherr helped walk Renker through all the overwhelming details following a cancer diagnosis, setting up appointments with specialists, letting him know what was going to happen every step of the way.
“It’s something I wish all hospitals would do,” Renker said. “They help you navigate the system when you don’t know who to turn to or when you need to get something done. You have an oncologist, a doctor for radiation, you’ve got your surgeon, general practitioner, nutritionist, rehab person. There are all these moving parts of your care package. Her job is to track and monitor and make sure you’re optimizing all those areas.”
Waldherr still calls Renker once a week, just to see how he’s doing.
“She’s a rock star,” Renker said.
Despite several complications, including a blood clot in his lung that caused difficulty breathing and fear of dying, Renker said the entire experience has helped him appreciate the way of life he’s chosen.
Renker and his family live on former farm land in the Grand River Valley, a place where a wide, slow-flowing river marks time as it passes near a Native American burial ground.
His wife found the home. He didn’t even want to go inside during the open house, fearing he would want to buy it. Turns out, the home met every item on their dream-home checklist, including a steam shower.
A little over two miles away, thriving strip malls, stores and restaurants beckon.
Renker isn’t biting. Like the slow but methodical river to the west, following nothing but a predetermined course, Renker is focused on the path that is closest to his heart—spending time with his wife, Terry, children Delaney and Griffin, and friends.
He’s taking his mom to Italy this year for her 70th birthday. He and his family frequently visit Ireland and Italy, and they also spend time at their second home in Harbor Springs, Michigan.
During his illness, Renker spent as much time as possible at their Harbor Springs getaway, doing nothing, as much as possible. Going to the beach, perhaps, and thinking a lot about a life lesson buried within, and an antagonist named “cancer.”
“I learned from this that I made the right choices over the last 25 or 30 years when it came to being a husband, and a parent and a friend,” he said. “There are a lot of people I’ve talked to who are ‘would-have, could-have, should-have people.’ …I have zero regrets.”