To say Tammy Coleman has a complicated medical history is something of an understatement.
She and her son, Rodney Brown, had moved to California from their Knoxville 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. That came from her father’s side of the family, she says. Breast and ovarian cancer were on her mother’s side, and not long after she and Rodney moved back to be closer to home and family support, she discovered she had breast cancer as well.
Genetic testing revealed mutations that indicated significant likelihood she would develop ovarian cancer too, so in one day Coleman went in for a double mastectomy and complete hysterectomy 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 gonna wake up. I’m gonna be okay,’” Tammy told her son.
After surgery came chemotherapy, through which she physically broke down. Her family, whose support she moved back to find comfort in, found themselves overwhelmed by her illness and kept themselves at a distance, except for Rodney, her grown son, who had been by his mom’s side since age 15 and at the start of her medical problems. “He’s been here since it all began,” she says.
In fact, the two used to live across the street from Provision CARES Proton Therapy Knoxville. Tammy was a photographer, and sometimes took wedding clients for pictures by the waterfall behind the Knoxville Comprehensive Breast Center. She and Rodney both of 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 conventional 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, Ms. Coleman 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,” Coleman 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.”
The Provision staff also sensed her hesitancy, said Tammy, 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 says. “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, Ms. Coleman has become a fierce advocate for breast cancer awareness, participating in local events, and signing up for cancer runs and spreading the word on a Facebook page she has 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.