Letter: Cancer: ‘Just a bump in the road’

My name is Tammy Smith Martin and July 1, 2010 changed my life forever. That was when I first heard the words, “You have breast cancer.” I was just 39 years old; this couldn’t be true. My life was perfect: A great husband, family, job and a sweet little 3-year-old boy who’s the light of my life.

Martin in 2005
Martin in 2005

But it was true. I had Stage 1 triple negative invasive ductal carcinoma. There were so many decisions to make, so many doctors to see and appointments to attend. I felt like I had gotten a Ph.D. in a matter of weeks. I made up my mind that day to have a bilateral mastectomy and minimize my chances for recurrence.

With my family’s history of breast cancer, I always knew it was a real possibility; I just never thought it would happen at such a young age. That same day, I underwent a genetic test to see if I had the gene: It came back positive for the BRCA II gene. What a thing to hear! Not only did I have a rare type of triple negative cancer, but now I was being told my body makes it! At first I was taken aback and really scared of dying but I had made up my mind that I would fight and I would win!

My doctor informed me that if I had the bilateral mastectomy and chemo, my chances of recurrence were about 15 percent. I laughed and said, “But I also have an 85 chance chance that it won’t come back and I like those odds much better.” He just smiled and shook his head.

I began my eight rounds of dense dosage chemo on Oct. 5 and had my last chemo on Jan. 13, 2011. When I heard that I had to have chemo my first question was if I would lose my hair. The answer, of course, was yes. I was devastated! What would my husband think? And my son? He was only 3; how would he understand why mommy was bald? I cried and worried over this loss for weeks, even more when my hair began to fall out in clumps.

One night I was talking to my mother-in-law and husband and told them how worried I was about losing my hair. She said to me, “Tammy, you have been so positive and this is just something else to conquer. You can take control of the situation and take care of it.” I had cancer but it didn’t have me. I was in charge and just letting it fall out was torture. I had my husband shave my head that night and the next morning when my son got up I told him that I had lost all my hair. He looked at me for a moment and asked to see. I took off my scarf and he said, “That’s so cool mommy.”

All told, I had four different types of chemo, including one was called “The Red Devil.” Unfortunately, I was allergic to my very last form of chemo, Taxol — it made the bottom of my feet itch to the point of tears. It took three weeks to get it out of my system and for my feet to stop itching. I began a natural chemo in its place.

Chemo was tough but I knew I was tougher. I ate right, rested and tried to keep active. I still did all the things I was doing before I was diagnosed: I still cooked, cleaned, walked, rode bikes with my son and went racing with my husband. I didn’t want cancer to change how I lived my life.

Ultimately, however, I have to admit my life has changed since cancer. Things hurt that never hurt before, my body is different and my feelings about life are different. I live each day to the fullest and I don’t think about the negative. I want to be here to see my son graduate, meet his first love, attend his wedding, spoil my grandchildren — I want to win this fight!

I have been cancer-free for three years, eight months and 21 days and I plan to stay that way. I believe that a positive attitude and a will for living make all the difference. Remember to love and laugh when you can and live like it’s your last day. Cancer does change you in many ways, but I know I am still me. I love who I am and the life that I have. Cancer was just a bump in the road!

Tammy Smith Martin
Springfield, Va.

Tammy is one of several members of Carolyn’s Live, Laugh, Love — Tammy’s sister Karen Williams’ Relay for Life team in Rappahannock. For more information on this year’s Relay, call co-chairs Ellen Timbers (540-987-8402), Phyllis Grogg (540-364-2640) or Karen Williams (540-635-4673). This year’s event is 2 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday, May 10.

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