Tammie’s Breast Cancer Story: How She Used Her Experience to Help Others
Mammograms are critical for finding breast cancers in localized and early stages. We hope this story will inspire you to get screened at a facility near you: http://dignityhlth.org/mammography
Tammie Jones is 51 years old and a 12-year survivor of breast cancer. Her initial diagnosis was a terrifying moment for her — but years later, she’s using her experience to help other women and let them know they’re not alone.
This is her story.
A Shocking Diagnosis
Tammie’s a mammographer, but when she first felt a lump in her breast one evening as she was getting ready for bed, she wasn’t too concerned. Because the lump was big, she thought it was just a cyst. And, she reasoned, she was too young to get breast cancer. This thinking led Tammie to put aside any worry of the lump for quite some time.
But something seemed to gradually change about six months down the road that made the problem impossible for Tammie to ignore.
“I saw a change in my breast tissue — it was the texture of an orange peel in that area,” she says.
She had a mammogram the next morning and an ultrasound-guided biopsy that afternoon. The next day, she got the diagnosis: invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common type of breast cancer.
“My first reaction was stunned,” she recalls. “I am only 38. I have two teenage boys. I just got remarried. I work in mammography. My husband works in radiology; also, he’s the CT tech. I went by his department and saw him sitting on the table with his head down. I thought, ‘He knows.’ I called my mother, who drove two hours to my house immediately. I called my best friend and just sat outside the department like it wasn’t real.”
The surgeon suggested a lumpectomy, which only removes the portion of the breast that is affected by the cancer-infected tissue, but Tammie chose a mastectomy — a full breast removal — instead because she saw two cancers in her mammogram, and only one had been biopsied for examination.
On April 28, 2004, her right breast was removed. After the mastectomy, the surgeon told her she had made a good choice — as it turned out, there were three cancer sites in the breast, and four out of nine lymph nodes were positive for cancer. She then had chemotherapy four times, every 21 days.
“It became reality when my hair started falling out,” she says. “Before then, it was like I was on automatic and just getting things done — no emotion. But the hardest part physically was the chemotherapy. There was a moment I just didn’t want to do it anymore.”
Tammie says her hair was always a source of vanity for her, and losing it was really hard. “I let the majority of it fall out, and then my husband shaved the few hairs that were left. My husband was great. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without him.”
After the chemotherapy, Tammie had radiation for six weeks. Following that, she started reconstruction.
“I had a TRAM flap reconstruction, where the stomach muscle and tissue are used to build a breast,” she explains. The procedure is similar to a tummy tuck — “the silver lining!” Tammie jests.
The time from Tammie’s diagnosis to her recovery was almost a year. She was diagnosed in April and had surgery in April. Chemotherapy began in June. She then had radiation in October and reconstruction in December. By January or February, she was back at work. She’s remained in remission ever since and has been cancer-free for 12 years. She gets a mammogram every year to keep an eye on things.
A Support Network Makes All the Difference
A network of support from friends, family, and other women who have gone through the same diagnosis is vital. But sometimes, family and friends aren’t sure exactly what to do to help a loved one who has breast cancer.
“Family members just need to be there: Listen and help,” Tammie says. “Some women don’t like too much help or to feel needy. Most families know the difference, but some don’t. I tell them, ‘Don’t be offended; just be there.’ They need to go to appointments and write things down. Everything is a blur, and this will help later. Also, write down any questions that come up after the doctor visits so they can be remembered next time.”
Tammie’s family was hugely helpful to her, she says. But telling them was really hard.
“When telling my boys, the only question that came from them was my youngest asking if I was going to die,” she recalls. “And to start off a new marriage this way was frightening. But my husband never wavered, and to this day, he is my biggest supporter.”
In addition to support from family and friends, finding other women who have walked the same path is also hugely helpful.
“I had family and friends — I didn’t realize how many friends I had,” she recalls. “But I wish I had women who had gone through it. I was so young and pretty new in the area.”
The Importance of Preventive Treatment
Sometimes, women are afraid to get mammograms because they don’t want to hear bad news. But Tammie says that early detection is so important, and she isn’t too thrilled about the new recommendation to only get a mammogram every two years starting at 50.
“I have always been an advocate for preventive health,” she says. “It’s very important to get the mammograms. Early detection is the best way. I work in mammography; I’ve seen what happens when a woman misses a year. I also stress the importance of self breast exams. The breast exam is really looking for differences from month to month — we are all somewhat lumpy — and it is so very important to know yourself.”
An Unforeseen Gift
Today, Tammie is able to help women when they’re diagnosed because of the experience she’s had going through the same thing.
“I give out my personal phone number and answer any questions they may have,” she says. “They are scared and, like me, kind of go blank. I don’t want anyone to go through this alone. So I let them know that it’s OK to feel and to let your friends and family support you and love you through it. The needs are different for everyone. Some need rides, housekeeping help, family dinners made for them … it’s all so appreciated. Some just need someone to listen. I think that’s the most important one.”
Tammie says she’s been able to turn what she went through into something positive and uses it to help other women.
“I actually feel like it was a gift,” she says. “I’ve gone through it. I’ve made some great friends by being a survivor and giving others someone they can call or turn to. Currently, I volunteer at a lot of events for a local support program, Albie Aware. Last year, I participated in a Survivor of the Year campaign; whoever raised the most money won. I raised over $15,000 and was crowned Survivor of the Year.”
What’s more important to Tammie than the title and recognition, however, is her increased ability to reach other breast cancer patients who are going through the same journey she did. As she learned firsthand, support from others makes all the difference during an extremely challenging time.
Image source: Tammie Jones