Tammy Mills: Living The Best Life Now

By Leslie Moore

Tammy Mills: Living The Best Life Now

Tammy Mills is the picture of health – pretty and petite with glowing skin and a bright smile. Our meeting in a local restaurant was filled with laughter, fun and a few tears. Why the tears? Tammy has Stage 4 breast cancer that has metastasized to her liver. She’s been told it can be treated, but not cured. “I just want to live,” Tammy told me, after we sat down together. “I want to live out my bucket list!”

A routine mammogram late in 2006 first revealed a suspicious calcification in her right breast. It was tiny, and Tammy had never felt a lump or had any problems. However, the risk had been a part of her life for many years. Tammy’s mother is a three time survivor of breast cancer and is now being treated for lung cancer. “I was not shocked by my diagnosis,” Tammy remembers, “I was the same age as my mother was the first time she was diagnosed.”

After having an array of tests, Tammy was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer and started treatment. She had radiation every day for six weeks and was then put on an estrogen blocking medication. Life went on as usual, and Tammy worked every day at her job as a medical assistant for South Strand Internists. Single, Tammy was surrounded by a loving group of friends and sustained by her strong faith.

After being treated for breast cancer, check-ups are given every three months for the first year, every four months the second year, every six months during the third and fourth year, and then, if everything stays normal, only annual checkups are required. By April of 2010, as Tammy was nearly ready to be released to annual checkups, the cancer came back.

“The last part of 2009 was very stressful for me,” said Tammy. “I lost my beloved Yorkie to a freak accident, moved and ended a relationship. But, by the spring of 2010, I had finally gotten through the grief and was ready to move on. I was going to the beach, playing volleyball and had started rowing in local Dragonboat races. Life was good.”

Tammy’s oncologist, Dr. Carol Bogdon, had run tests for tumor markers in her blood and, even though her mammogram was normal, her tumor markers were very high. After a PET scan, a test often used to detect tumors, Tammy learned that the breast cancer had recurred in her liver. In the blink of any eye, she went from having Stage 1 to Stage 4 cancer.

Of course, Tammy was devastated. “I had no symptoms at all. All I can remember feeling was shock and disbelief; I couldn’t see or feel anything wrong. It was very hard to take it all in.”

More tests were run, including one very painful liver biopsy, and a trip to Duke University for a second opinion, before the decision was made to begin chemotherapy. While Tammy has been fortunate to not have some of the more severe symptoms of chemotherapy, she still suffers from flu-like symptoms, fatigue, bone pain and severe gastric distress. But the worst thing for Tammy was that within two weeks of receiving her first treatment, she lost her hair.

“I started losing my hair on a Thursday, two weeks after the first treatment,” Tammy remembers, “and by Saturday it was very noticeable. That was when I had my biggest cry, somehow losing my hair made it real. Losing my hair was awful, more than awful.”

Fortunately for Tammy, she is surrounded by friends who will not allow her to walk this path alone. On that following Monday, one of her close friends went with her to a “Look Good…Feel Better” program, sponsored by the American Cancer Society, designed to help alleviate the appearance-related side effects of cancer. She and her friend dressed up, wore beautiful scarves and big earrings and it was there that Tammy made the decision to buy a wig.

“Glenda Stark, owner of The Wig Shop in Murrells Inlet, where I bought the wig I wear now, made me feel so welcome and so beautiful. My wig has made so much difference in the way I feel. The first one I saw is the one I ended up with, but we tried them all on and laughed and had fun! I realized that I could still be beautiful without hair.”

Another friend had suggested some time back that Tammy contact the Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA), but Tammy vetoed the idea because she wasn’t sure she wanted to leave home for treatment and didn’t want to miss even more work. But, one Saturday, after losing her hair, Tammy broke down and called CTCA and talked to an Oncology Information Representative for nearly an hour. Within two weeks, she and a friend were flying to the center in Oklahoma for a consultation.

“I realized that I am important, and this is my life. I want to live!”

Cancer Treatment Centers of America has four cancer treatment hospitals in the United States and offered Tammy a wide array of services. She now flies to the center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, every three weeks for her chemotherapy treatments and has learned other ways to be healthier, such as changes to her diet, a better vitamin regimen to protect her immune system, which is crucial to fighting cancer, and ways to alleviate stress. Tammy is very pleased with her treatment, telling me, “I see an oncologist, a naturopathic physician, a dietitian, a spiritual counselor and a psychologist every time I go. They treat me like a person, not a patient and respect whatever decisions I make.”

Steve Mackin, president and CEO in Tulsa, said, “We listen to what patients want and value in their cancer care. We listen because treatment decisions are among the most important decisions a person living with cancer will ever make. We listen to fully understand what patients hope to achieve – their individual life and health goals. Understanding these goals helps us to see

cancer patients as people not protocols; and allows us to uphold our commitment to provide clear information and powerful and thorough treatment options, all based on the needs of the patients we serve…The term ‘patient-centered’ is used heavily nowadays, but patients truly are at the center of all we do. In fact, we just introduced Patient Empowered Care, an advancement in the patient treatment delivery process that empowers patients to be active participants in their care. Cancer affects every person differently. No two patients are the same. No two cancers are the same. No two treatment plans are the same. Therefore, we have tailored our integrated care model which combines state-of-the-art medicine to aggressively treat the cancer with scientifically supported complementary therapies to manage side effects and improve quality of life.”

Tammy’s last visit to CTCA showed a small shrinkage in her tumor. She feels good most of the time and continues to work and spend time with her friends. “I surround myself with positive people. My friends and my Women’s Life Group from church keep me upbeat and happy. I learned that I do not have to go through this alone. When people ask me how I am able to be so positive, I tell them that God is bigger than cancer!” This support system includes her co-workers as well, who held a fundraiser for Tammy this past June, raising over $8,000. They called it, “For the Love of Tammy.”

To learn more about Cancer Treatment Centers of America, visit www.cancercenter.com.

About this writer

  • Leslie Moore Leslie Moore is the editor for Strand Media Group. A 25 year resident of Pawleys Island, she is blessed with a life filled with the love of family and friends and satisfying work to do every day.

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2 Responses to “Tammy Mills: Living The Best Life Now”

  1. Thank you for sharing this encouraging story of faith, courage and hope! May God’s healing power and blessings continue to be with Tammy. The Patient Empowered Care sounds like a great program, and the support of good friends is so valuable.

  2. Diane Collins says:

    We love you Tammy! This is a great article and nice pictures too. God is Good, all the time!

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