Meet Tami: When cancer came knocking a second time as stage IV breast cancer, Tami didn't let it get the best of her. By being a proactive patient and finding strength in her family and fellow miracle cancer survivors, she did everything in her power to heal in body, mind and spirit.
1. How has cancer affected your life?
For me, cancer was a wake-up call. If I didn't learn the first time around, this second bout with cancer certainly caught my attention. I've learned to make my health in body, mind and spirit a priority, and I appreciate things so much more. A blooming dogwood tree, my daughter's smile, time with my husband...it means so much to me. I feel so grateful for being here for my daughter's (who is now 13) milestones. Every day is a gift. Cancer has brought many blessings that I would not have realized without this daunting challenge. Writing my book and sharing its message with people around the country (and the world through my blog, www.MiracleSurvivors.com
) is certainly one of them. The process of interviewing the amazing individuals featured in this book and writing their stories was extremely therapeutic to me, and the more I share on my blog and social media, the more connected I feel with other amazing cancer survivors. What I give, I receive back ten-fold.
2. How did you find out you had cancer?
I was first diagnosed in 2002 at age 38 with stage II breast cancer. I found the lump by doing a self breast exam. I was on Tamoxifen and doing well after going through a lumpectomy, heavy chemo and radiation.
In February 2008, I insisted on seeing her a month earlier than my regular check-up because of a large lump I discovered in my right armpit. I had worried from time to time about some swelling and hardness. My worst nightmare came true – after five years of being cancer-free, it had come back with a vengeance. The tumor was a very large nine centimeters in diameter. I had a barrage of scans to see if the cancer spread. I was working as a public relations specialist at a large teaching hospital at the time. I remember retrieving my results and sitting in my office, staring at my PET scan report. There were spots in lymph nodes in my chest and, most worrisome, my liver. It was stage IV breast cancer.
3. What was your first reaction to the diagnosis?
My first thought was my daughter, then eight years old. I knew I had to do everything I could to be there for her. I felt devastated, but I told the oncologist, who informed me I would certainly die from this, that I was too stubborn to die. Then I got mad and decided to prove her wrong.
4. How did you choose your course of treatment and care providers?
I practice what I preach when it comes to being a proactive patient. I do research, go to conferences, network, and use the resources available to me to make the best treatment decisions. I have both a local oncologist and a consulting oncologist that we travel two hours to see. He is one of the leading breast cancer oncologists/researchers in the country.
I also found a holistic center in Chicago (Block Center for Integrative Cancer Care). Sometimes I will push for treatments that my doctors don't recommend. Several of my recommendations have come from people in my book. For instance, a woman featured in my book did a treatment, which involved directing radioactive beads directly to tumors in the liver. I finally convinced my local oncologist to refer me to a doctor who performs this in town. The treatment got rid of the tumor, and it hasn't shown up in scans in almost two years.
5. What helped you the most throughout your cancer treatment?
My husband and daughter. I don't know what I do without them. They give me reason to carry on. I've always gained strength from hearing success stories of other survivors, especially people like Lance Armstrong, who beat stage IV cancer. I started seeking out other survivors who overcame or were living well with a metastatic cancer diagnosis. The more people I found who shared their stories with me, the more confident I became that I, too, could beat the odds.
I talked with so many of these "miracle" survivors; it began to feel like they were the norm, not the exception to it. They showed me anything is possible, and there is always hope. The Internet is a wonderful way to connect with hundreds of cancer survivors. When I struggle, I think of how the people I've met never gave up despite setbacks. And almost all of them are thriving today.
Fears still come up, especially when I experience an unusual pain, get a scan that shows progression, or when someone dies from cancer. But I'm able to temper them now with gratitude and optimism, despite what medical reports may indicate. I am learning to give myself pep talks and counter negative thoughts with powerful, positive ones.
I visualize my treatments, along with all my holistic practices, doing their work on those pesky, little cancer cells. I tell myself I'm healthy and whole. Most of all, I turn my attention to staying in the moment and enjoying everything around me. Every day is a gift, and I wake up thanking God for it. I know by doing this, I'm taking an active role in my healing.
6. What was most frustrating to deal with?
That every three months, it feels like a crap shoot on whether or not my treatment is working. I just had a scan that showed progression, despite the fact that I'm taking lots of supplements; eating a whole, organic and cancer-fighting diet; and doing everything else in my power to stop this cancer. I am learning that, at least for now, it is a chronic disease and that I'll always be trying different treatments and holistic measures. As my oncologist put it, "It's a marathon; not a race." I am hanging on until they find a cure, which I believe is closer than it ever has been before.
7. What advice would you give to someone facing a similar situation?
Paying attention poor survival rates, I believe, can be detrimental. Statistics are just numbers that lump together a large, diverse group of individuals. They don't apply to me, and they certainly don't apply to the people who’ve shared their stories of hope with me. I believe there is no such thing as false hope. Hope for me has been the most powerful drug, one that will outlast the effects of any chemo. Miracles do happen, but you must play a part in the miracle by being proactive and doing everything in your power to heal in body, mind and spirit.