Renee Thornton glows with exuberance for life.
There’s no such thing as a bad day, she says.
“If you’re alive, it’s a good day,” she says.
It’s a good day when you can walk up the stairs in your home instead of crawling on your hands and knees.
It’s a good day when you can pump iron and rock CrossFit like a boss — instead of struggling to lift your head from the pillow.
It’s a good day when you can look into your husband’s eyes and tell him how much you appreciate him — instead of feeling so sick and weak and close to death that you beg him, “Please let me go. Please let me go.”
Renee Thornton counts days and moments differently now than she did before Jan. 8, 2015, when excruciating pain in her side sent her to the emergency room.
Maybe it’s a stomach bug, she thought. She was 50 and healthy. What could possibly be wrong?
She never smoked or drank. She took Zumba classes the same week she felt the pain.
Renee and her husband, Charlie, were so into nutrition, they started a smoothie shop, Smoothie Whirl’d, on Okeechobee and Military Trail in West Palm Beach, in 2012 — with protein shakes and all kinds of good things to boost customers’ health.
This pain must be nothing, she thought.
Renee was resting on the bed in the ER, joking with her daughter, Savannah, when the doctor delivered the news:
She had a tumor wrapped around her spleen.
Official diagnosis: Diffuse large B cell lymphoma, stage 4.
Treatment: Surgery and aggressive chemotherapy.
Prognosis: Two out of three people diagnosed with this kind of lymphoma survive for five years.
Facing her mortality each day
Here’s the thing about Renee. Even when she was too sick to glow, or to walk, she had faith in God.
She had the best support team — Charlie, Savannah and son Seth. They all took turns cutting her hair when the chemo caused it to fall out.
And they were there when the chemo almost killed her. Twice.
She happened to be allergic to the drugs, and not just a little bit allergic.
“My oncologist, Dr. Daniel Spitz of Florida Cancer Specialists, said I was in the top 10 percent of patients who were most reactive to chemo in his 30 years of practice,” she says.
By her third treatment, she couldn’t walk. Her weight went from 150 pounds to 108.
“I didn’t think I would make it,” she says. “I got side effects they had never even heard of before.”
After every treatment, Renee would wait with Charlie for hours in the parking lot of the hospital — just to be sure she didn’t have a reaction that would kill her.
She had to trust God in those moments, she says. “I was facing my own mortality every single day.”
Six months after the chemo ended, she still had trouble walking, because the chemo had settled into her joints and caused neuropathy in her left arm and leg.
And yet … even on the worst days, she had no “bad” days. She was alive.
By January 2016, she was ready to “get back into the world.”
Working out ‘reroutes’ the mind
A dozen women friends — her “book club,” she calls them — helped Renee get back into the world.
The “book club” does read books, but the women share more than the stories on the pages.
These women are bonded by a common enemy: anxiety. Some get so gripped by fear they’re occasionally afraid to leave their homes.
They are schoolteachers, business women, health care professionals, moms. Most don’t want their names printed, because they fear being judged — although anxiety disorders are so common, one-third of all women will experience them. (In men, the lifetime rate is 22 percent, and at any given time, 18 percent of Americans suffer from anxiety disorders.)
They get strength from each other — emotionally and physically.
Since September, they have been merging talk therapy with hard-core workouts in a pilot program called Thera-Train, developed by their therapists, Connie Ingram and Gloria Bencosme, who practice in Royal Palm Beach.
The goal of adding twice-a-week exercise to therapy: Moving the body reroutes the thoughts in the mind.
“It redirects negative thoughts to positive thoughts,” Bencosme says. And it focuses the mind on the activity at hand. Your obsessive thoughts can’t spin out of control when you’re literally spinning.
Bencosme measures each woman’s “level of distress” — feelings of anxiety, worry, nervousness, fear and lack of focus — before, during and after each workout.
Two trainers — Christine Palmer and Brandon Sellnow, who have gyms in Royal Palm Beach — keep the women motivated with tough workouts and inspirational quotes.
One of those quotes is particularly apt for Renee: “I survived because the fire inside me burned brighter than the fire around me.”
When she was strong enough to do her first push-up, all her “book-club” friends cheered.
Building stronger bodies is “empowering,” says Melissa, who doesn’t want her last name used. “It burns off that anxiousness we have. It’s a constructive way to use that energy, to bring that adrenaline back in line.”
Charlie Thornton saw a change in his wife as soon as she started Thera-Train. Renee got more than muscles.
“She glowed!” he says. “As soon as she started exercising, I told her: ‘You’re carrying yourself differently.’ Her steps used to be timid. Now she stands taller and goes for it!”
‘You will get there!’
Charlie helped stoke the fire inside Renee.
When she was at her worst, when “she was just a shell,” and she begged him to let her go, Charlie grabbed her face, looked at her and said: “Don’t give up! I see you on the other side of this cancer. I see you healthy and with hair. You will get there!”
And so, here she is — more than two years cancer-free and stronger than she has ever been in every way.
“Before cancer, I was just going, going, going through life,” Renee says. “Now I pause. Now I enjoy every person who comes in the shop. If they are hurting, I walk around the counter and give them a hug.
“I’ve become braver. I worry less. I take advantage of each moment. Now I approach life and think: I can do this!”
The mind/body connection:
Easing anxiety by adding workouts to talk therapy
Mental health counselors Gloria Bencosme and Connie Ingram developed Thera-Train — a pilot program combining twice-a-week workouts with talk therapy — to help women with anxiety.
Bencosme records each participant’s “levels of distress” — including fear, worry and lack of focus — before, during and after each workout.
Renee Thornton’s battle with stage 4 lymphoma had weakened her body and tested her mind. She is now cancer-free, but after her grueling treatment, “I was scared to be left alone,” the West Palm Beach business owner recalls. “I couldn’t do a push-up. I couldn’t touch my toes.”
Her participation in Thera-Train changed that.
Thornton’s levels of “tension” dropped from a 5 to a 1 after an hour of exercise. Her anxiety score dropped from 70 percent before starting training in September to 10 percent after several weeks.
“I have more clarity and not as much worry,” Thornton says.
For more information on Thera-Train, call Ingram & Associates Counseling and Consulting Inc. at 561-792-9242.
If you want a tasty and nutritious smoothie, visit Renee and Charlie Thornton’s shop, Smoothie Whirl’d, in the Cross County Plaza, near Big Lots, at Okeechobee Boulevard and Military Trail in West Palm Beach.
A Boynton Beach Smoothie Whirl’d will open at the end of February at 9770 S. Military Trail.
Go to smoothiewhirld.com for menu and more information, or call 561-689-1601.