I was pumping breastmilk for my seven-month-old daughter Taylor when I first felt a lump in my breast. I was at her daycare pumping the milk to leave for the next day. I didn’t think much about the lump as I thought it was a clogged milk duct, so I massaged the lump as I had done when nursing my older daughter Tara.
But after a few days, there was no change, so I called my OB/GYN, and at my appointment, she thought it was a blocked duct as well, but still wanted a Breast Specialist to see me.
A few days later I was seen by Dr. Michele Fantazzio, who was amazing from the first moment she walked into the room. I was advised to have an immediate biopsy but later found out she immediately knew from the examination that it was cancer. I shared the diagnosis with my family, who advised me to get a second opinion from UPenn Health System, which was one of the premier health systems in my region. My diagnosis was confirmed as HER2-positive.
There were specific treatments to target HER2 that were found to be very effective, so I would begin the recommended strategy of chemotherapy, followed by surgery, and then radiation. I remember fearing what would happen to my body as I went through this. The thought of losing my hair and my breasts brought me to tears, but not once did death cross my mind. I knew God was going to bring me through this. I knew I would be a survivor and a conqueror.
I have a very close and extensive family, along with healthy friendships and I’m very active at my church. However, I wanted to be intentional about who knew about my diagnosis. I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me or to always ask if I was ok. I needed to stand strong in my faith to get through this; I didn’t want to deal with other people’s pity, or them not knowing what to say, as it could negatively affect me. Many people didn’t know what I was going through – I only told my immediate family, my pastor and first lady, my boss and another co-worker, and a few close friends. I continued attending church, singing on the Praise and Worship team, and went to work every day.
On my first day of chemotherapy, I didn’t feel well-informed and had no idea what to expect, except that I should plan to be there for six hours. My first oncologist was highly regarded, however I found him to be very cold and with a horrible bedside manner. That doctor was not available for my next appointment, and that’s when I met Dr. Michael Rotkowitz, who seemed to genuinely care about me and my condition. He asked questions about me that the previous doctor hadn’t cared about. Dr. Rotkowitz was sincerely interested in doing what he could to help me, and I’ll be forever grateful for him.
I continued with chemotherapy every three weeks for eight sessions. For each appointment, I took the day off from work, but by the grace of God, was always able to return the next day. I would feel awful; another survivor told me to drink a lot of water to flush the toxins out of my body, and I believe that helped my post-chemo condition, and I just pressed through the pain and discomfort that I was feeling.
I never asked anyone for help, I don’t think I knew how. One thing I would advise anyone going through any issue where you need help is to ask. People want to help, but they may not know the best way to help. Thankfully my best friend Joy seemed to know what I would need, and would help without having to be asked, or just listen when I needed to talk. I didn’t feel like I had to be strong around her. My family and other friends were also there for me, and I’m forever grateful for my support system.
As I had feared, my hair started coming out after my first chemo session. This was probably the most devastating occurrence of my treatment. After years of struggling with unhealthy hair that would randomly break off, I finally had hair that I always desired – healthy and long. I couldn’t bear watching it fall out, so Joy found a salon run by a cancer survivor who specialized in hair treatment for women. The stylist, HairDiva Myisha, shaved my hair off and shaped a wig that looked just like my own hair.
I remember looking at my bald head thinking, how can I be going through this? After a couple of weeks, I complained to my doctor about how sick I looked with my hair and eyebrows gone and my skin gray. She responded that it could be a lot worse based on what she’s seen. After hearing that, I decided to change my thinking and made a playlist of songs that declared how great God was. Every time I would feel myself wallowing in self-pity, I listened to those songs to lift up my spirits.
Following chemo, Dr. Fantazzio recommended proceeding with a lumpectomy instead of a mastectomy. During the surgery, there was no tumor in the breast tissue that was removed. My lymph nodes were also removed to confirm it hadn’t spread, Praise God! I also continued another chemo treatment called Herceptin, which required six treatments, once every three weeks for an hour.
The final phase of my treatment required daily radiation for a month. This was my final step to ensure nothing was missed with the chemo and surgery. During each session a listened to a sermon recording, usually Stephen Furtick, as I just wanted to hear the word of God. The radiation darkened my skin, but due to a special skin moisturizer my doctor gave me to use following each radiation, my skin did not peel off. I was grateful for every blessing, no matter how great or small.
One of the most heartbreaking ordeals was having to stop nursing my daughter. I had nursed Tara until she was a year old, and it was always my plan to do the same with Taylor, or at least continue pumping. I broke down when I learned that I could no longer use my milk. Throughout my treatment, my children really didn’t know or understand what was going on. Although we never had a conversation about it, Tara knew I was sick, but not that I was fighting cancer. I never wanted them to see me go through any pain or see me cry.
As I think back on my story, I remember two years before being diagnosed, I was begrudgingly transferred from my teaching position at a high school to an elementary school in the same district. It was not a move I wanted, and I cried every day after work for the first month. Looking back, I now see how through the job shift, God was lining up accommodations for my upcoming fight against cancer. My new principal was so understanding through my entire treatment, and my co-workers helped cover my classes and deeply empathized with my condition. I only had to miss school during the chemo days and for my surgery. My administration was very flexible with me. I don’t know that I would have had the same support or flexibility if I had stayed at the high school. It’s a reminder that God can be trusted even when we don’t understand why things happen to us.
Not once did I feel like God left me and I had no doubt He would carry me through this. But I do remember questioning ‘why me’? Graciously through the process, I realized why…so God could show Himself strong in and through me. I knew God was a healer, I sang every week in church about how good He was, but up to that point, I had never experienced Him as a healer, as I was rarely ever sick.
As I reflect on my journey, I never knew how strong I was. No one had ever spoken about or referred to me as a woman of strength. Growing up, my family always thought they had to look out for me. My favorite song to listen to was You Are My Strength by William Murphy, and I had the word Strength with a cross tattooed on my arm, as a reminder of where my strength comes from.
My story is one of fully trusting in God. I knew God was the only one who could get me through this. After what I went through, I know without a shadow of a doubt that I can trust Him with any and everything because He has me in the palm of His hand. He provided me comfort like no one else could have, and the peace I experienced could only be found in Him. It’s like I felt him saying, “Tina, I got you.” I never worried that I wouldn’t come through this ok. I’m over four years cancer-free, and if there is anything I want you to take from my story is – no matter what you are going through, no matter how painful it is, no matter how hopeless it seems, you can trust God with it. I’m living proof.
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