To say Tammy has a complicated medical history is something of an understatement.
She and her son, Rodney, moved to California from their Tennessee hometown, but the tiny woman with a gigantic smile was soon stricken with a bewildering series of health problems. Two heart attacks, a stroke, congestive heart failure, and complications related to high blood pressure kept Tammy in and out of the hospital for months at a time.
She says those issues came from her father’s side of the family. Breast and ovarian cancer were on her mother’s side, and not long after she and Rodney moved back to Tennessee to be closer to home and family support, Tammy discovered she had breast cancer as well.
Genetic testing revealed mutations that indicated significant likelihood she would also develop ovarian cancer. Coleman opted to have a double mastectomy and complete hysterectomy on the same day in hopes of beating the odds.
“I was in surgery nine to 10 hours,” Tammy said. The night before, facing a daunting procedure, she promised Rodney she was going to pull through. “I said, ‘Tomorrow we’re going to have this conversation again. I’m going to wake up. I’m going to be okay.'”
After surgery came chemotherapy, during which she physically broke down. Her family, whose support she moved back home to find comfort in, found themselves overwhelmed by her illness and kept themselves at a distance. The only exception was Rodney, who had been by his mom’s side since age 15 and from the start of her medical problems.
“He’s been here since it all began,” Tammy said.
In fact, the two used to live across the street from Provision CARES Proton Therapy. Tammy was a photographer, and sometimes took wedding clients for pictures by the waterfall on campus. She and Rodney both wondered what business might be coming across the street, as the proton therapy center was just preparing for construction. Rodney watched with interest as plans for the proton therapy center unfolded. He researched the technology and found it fascinating, of course not realizing how personally it would affect him.
As it turned out, the move back to Tennessee from San Jose was a good one, as the proton therapy centers in California were in a different part of the state. After being diagnosed with cancer, Tammy’s doctors recommended proton therapy rather than traditional radiation, because of her heart condition and other health issues. Proton therapy reduces radiation exposure to crucial organs near the breasts, particularly the heart and lungs.
At first, Tammy was apprehensive about proton therapy treatment. “When I first walked into Provision I was a nervous wreck,” she said. “I was so scared. I knew protons are still radiation. I thought, ‘That looks like the weirdest machine I’ve seen in my entire life, and you want me to lay on that table?’”
As she followed through with treatment, however, she and Rodney say they discovered a second home at Provision.
“When you’re sitting in a regular medical facility, nobody talks to anybody,” Tammy said. “At Provision, everybody’s so friendly. All the guys, they became my brothers and dads and cousins. I feel like I gained a whole new family by being here.”
Tammy says the Provision staff also sensed her hesitancy and were quick to reassure her.
“They knew to come and say, ‘Miss Tammy, it’s okay. This is what we’re going to do,’” she said. “You can ask just about anybody anything. Everything is explained. They make sure you understand and make sure you’re comfortable.”
Since her cancer diagnosis, Tammy has become a fierce advocate for breast cancer awareness, participating in local events, signing up for cancer runs, and spreading the word on a Facebook page she set up expressly for that purpose.
She’s also become an advocate for Provision. She gives out bumper stickers all over town and has set up presentations on proton therapy with local groups as part of her choice to be a Proton Ambassador.
“This is my passion now,” concluded Tammy.