When Tammy Myers first met with her surgical oncologist, she got right to the point.
“How long do I have?” she asked.
Her breast cancer diagnosis, she assumed, was a death sentence. As a mom, wife, artist and type-A perfectionist, she resolved to prepare for the worst.
How much has changed in the 15 months since that day.
“I didn’t think, ‘How will I get through this?’” Myers recalls now.
And that amazes her. Because as a breast cancer survivor, she has come to realize life does not end the moment you hear the C-word. That she could―and did―get through it.
“I still have a lot of life to live,” Myers says. “I am seeing the good in every little moment and not taking things for granted.”
And most astonishing, her battle with cancer has changed her life for the better, she says. She has found a mission in using her experience to help others.
“I’ve grown so much as a person since before it happened,” she says. “I like this version of me better. I’m more confident. I don’t sweat the small stuff. I don’t waste time on things that don’t matter anymore.”
That transformation would have seemed unimaginable on Feb. 16, 2015.
That’s the day Myers heard the diagnosis that changed her life.
She had noticed a lump in her left breast weeks earlier. But she couldn’t believe it could be cancer. She was only 33. She had no family history for the disease. She didn’t smoke or drink. She ate healthy.
I wanted to fight and leave whatever I could for (my daughter) Corryn in the event the unthinkable happened.
And life was busy. A year earlier, she had moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her husband, Jordan, and their daughter, Corryn, then 2. She was interviewing for a job in advertising while working as a wedding photographer.
But she finally decided to consult her doctor about the lump. And that led to a day at Spectrum Health Cancer Center at Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion, where she underwent ultrasounds and mammograms. Afterward, she met with the radiologist.
“It’s pretty serious,” he said. “I think you have two forms of breast cancer.”
Tests showed five lesions in her left breast as well as calcifications, small deposits that sometimes suggest early cancer.
Myers’ care team at Spectrum Health Cancer Center decided to move quickly.
She underwent a double mastectomy, and then had chemotherapy and radiation. And she started anti-hormonal treatments that target her form of cancer.
“Those were scary days,” she says.
Hardest of all was thinking about what this life-and-death battle would mean for her daughter. As she photographed weddings, the traditional father-daughter dance brought her to tears.
“I thought, ‘I’m not going to see that,’” she says.
Facing an uncertain future, she tried to focus on what she could control. She wrote cards for Corryn to open at each birthday. And she began a blog to chronicle her journey, planning to turn her posts into a book for her daughter.
“I wanted to fight and leave whatever I could for Corryn in the event the unthinkable happened,” she says.
The blog soon expanded beyond its initial purpose. On the website, mypersonalpinktime.org, Myers shares her experiences with a wide audience and raises awareness about breast cancer risks for young women. With a photographer’s eye, she documents in intimate detail the surgery to remove her breasts and the steps to reconstruct them.
That openness did not come easily at first.
“I was just so shy,” she says. “But I made a promise to myself. Whenever this uncomfortable stuff comes up, I would just let it happen. I would do it without hesitation if it will help somebody.”
Readers of her blog have responded with gratitude. Women tell her she puts into words feelings they have been unable to express. They ask her advice and suggest topics for future posts.
A good prognosis
Myers finished her radiation therapy in September and now takes only the anti-hormonal therapy. She had her last major reconstruction surgery in April.
“I think she has an excellent chance of being cured of this,” says Marianne Melnik, MD, her surgical oncologist.
She hopes Myers’ story will raise awareness about breast cancer risks, especially among young women, and will encourage others to do self-breast exams.
“She is an amazing person,” Melnik says. “She has really fought through this and was an incredible trooper through it all. She is a very loving and caring person.”
Myers’ story also highlights the progress made in the fight against breast cancer, a disease that affects about 1 in 8 U.S. women. Dr. Melnik cites new tools and techniques available to doctors, such as targeted agents that hone in on cancers with different receptors. Oncotype testing can help predict whether a patient will benefit from chemotherapy.
“We cure 85 percent of all breast cancers, so it’s pretty impressive,” Dr. Melnik said. “It’s a common disease, but highly curable.”
A new beginning
The battle was brutal at times, Myers says. She endured a number of complications, including an infection that delayed her reconstruction surgery.
“There were awful, awful moments, and I struggled every step of the way,” she says.
She realizes how much the journey consumed her life when she sees her daughter play make-believe. When she pretends she’s the mom, Corryn takes her toys to the doctor, rather than the store or park.
“She thinks it’s normal for Mommy to go to the doctor every single day,” she says.
But Myers believes Corryn will gain empathy, understanding and resilience in the long run.
“I also hope that no matter what happens, she grows up knowing I didn’t give up, that I was strong when I needed to be and that she can be, too,” she says.
Myers has found new purpose for her design, photography and advertising skills. She is working on projects designed to raise awareness about breast cancer.
In her battle with breast cancer, she says, “I’ve found a lot of positives. It’s not the end. It’s kind of the beginning of what my life is supposed to be.”