My Life Is A Gift: Tanya's Story – Jackson Rowe | Canada

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My Life Is A Gift: Tanya's Story

My Life Is A Gift: Tanya's Story

With a cause very dear to our heart, during October 2022 we donated all proceeds from selected products to Tanya McLaughlin to support her during her cancer journey.

Here is Tanya's story:

I was about 16 years old when my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. At the time, cancer was so foreign to me, and so surreal, that I truly didn’t think the worst could ever happen. It doesn’t happen to people like me…in real life. But then it did. She passed away when I was 18. Watching the disease take over her during that time was indescribable. Caring for her, worrying for her, and fearing for her, took on a life of its own. The grief that follows the loss of a mom is not something words can articulate. From then on, I lost the sense of security that youth typically brings. I knew the worst was possible in life. I saw it with my own eyes, and it wasn’t long before we faced it again. 

My father passed from Melanoma when I was 26. To watch your dad, the strongest man alive to most daughters, face the demon and lose was another devastating blow. The two strongest, bravest and most determined people in my life, the people I loved most in this world, were taken from me. I had one enemy in life now. Little did I know it was coming for me too.

In 2017, at the age of 36, going about my typical crazed, rat race of a life…working and chasing around a 7- and 4-year-old, I found a lump. As much as I tried to reason with myself that it was nothing, women find lumps all the time…deep down I just knew. On our 9th wedding anniversary, my husband and I spent the morning at the hospital with me being whisked from room to room, from mammogram to ultrasound, to biopsy. The hurriedness of the staff confirmed my instincts that I was in trouble. It was October 5th, 2017, the day after my 37th birthday, that my husband and I walked into my doctor’s office for the news. He was shocked. I was not. I had been looking over my shoulder since I was 18 years old, and it finally found me.

I immediately went into fight mode. No way was this enemy taking me from my kids or family. No way was going to let my sister lose me this way after losing our parents. Not a chance. Not today.

The first few weeks were a flurry of scans and tests. This was one of the hardest parts; waiting to hear how “bad” it is, how “progressed” it is, and where it could have spread to. I was consumed with fear (but hid it well) and had to remind myself, often, to breathe. So many tests, so many sleepless nights just looking at my kids and praying. My husband and I put on brave faces, carried on as usual, and prayed.

Concerned about the size and aggressive nature of my tumour, my doctor advised we jump right into chemotherapy in hopes of shrinking it and keeping it contained. I could no longer keep the news private; it was all happening so fast. Telling my family and friends was not easy but telling my kids….it was the moment I always feared – ever since I sat at my kitchen table at 16 years old and received the news about my mom – I feared this day. But with confidence in my eyes and hope in my heart, I looked into their little faces and promised them that mommy wouldn’t die. So, I better not.

Chemotherapy definitely had its ups and downs. The upside is you know you’re taking action and battling this thing. The downside is you feel like hell, and you look like hell. The “red demon” some called it, or the “red cocktail”. Me? I prefer “red cocktail” as it sounds more upbeat. Warned that it would be difficult, and armed with many, many other medications to offset sickness and side effects, I went to battle. And it showed. I lost my hair, had mouth and nose sores, lost fingernails and toenails, neuropathy pain, nausea…pretty much everything you read about. Without the use of a port, my veins took a beating…my arms and hands black and blue all the time. It was the longest 5 months of my life. But it worked. The tumour shrunk, and we could finally go in and get it out.

I remember the night before surgery, I felt oddly calm about it. I know some women mourn the loss of their breasts, but I think I was too focused on getting the cancer out that I hadn’t allowed myself that emotion. A double mastectomy at my age was extreme but necessary. It was too risky to even consider another method. And off I went. I awoke after surgery and saw my husband and sister sitting with me. Everything went well, and I’d be home in a couple of days. My time in the hospital was tough. The nurse made me move and get up to walk around. The impact and trauma on my body were way more than I could have expected. This was going to be a long road to recovery.

It took weeks to heal from surgery. But finally, I was healed enough for radiation. I hadn’t cried much during my treatment, certainly from pain, but this got me. The burn became so unbearable the tears were automatic. I will never forget this. I will also never forget how many dots were on the ceiling in that radiation room. What else is there to do while you are laying there for almost an hour every day for 5 weeks? Alas…it did end. And with many, MANY tubes of Polysporin later, I was healing quickly.

My targeted therapy finally came to end in February 2019. Now my maintenance therapy consisted of hormone therapy only. My pathology had shown that estrogen fuelled my cancer fire, so keeping estrogen out would reduce the chances of any cancer spreading or recurring. This inevitably brought about menopause – which has its own host of side effects….but I digress.

In November of 2021, I went in for surgery, yet again, and had my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed. The doctor who removed these was the same one who saw me through my pregnancies and delivered my daughter. It kind of felt full circle to me. For me, this was harder (emotionally) than losing my breasts. It felt like the part of me that made me a mother was taken away. But I am so incredibly lucky to have two beautiful children, and my family was complete.

A Message from Tanya:

"The journey through treatment and recovery is long. It is exhausting. And it never ends. From the time of diagnosis, we often find ourselves wrapped in support by loved ones if we are lucky – which I was. Friends and family rally around you and lift you up, giving you hope and strength. The world sees you – your bald head and your scars - and supports you when you need it. But what happens when the hair grows back, and scars fade? I can say, without a doubt, many of my most challenging times were later in my journey. When the world doesn’t “see” your pain anymore, and your life returns to a typical routine, a whole new phase of the journey is set in motion. We are now surviving survival. We made it through the darkness and are forging ahead with continued treatment, lifelong side effects, emotional and physical trauma, and often financial devastation. Yet, we are thrown back out to the world and told to “live”. We are held back by these challenges, along with all the fear survivorship brings, and shame in our feelings. We tend to suffer silently, so as to not seem ungrateful for this gift we have been given. 

My passion to bring awareness and support to others in their survivorship was fueled when Julia, the beautiful soul behind Jackson Rowe, reached out to me about their Hope Collection. I felt seen at this stage of my journey, so much so, that it brought tears to my eyes. Because of this, I have now begun writing for Breast Cancer blogs and foundations on the challenges of surviving survival and will be joining a mentorship program for other patients. Feeling support has given me renewed purpose, and I hope that by paying it forward, I can bring the same feeling to many others out there who are suffering silently.

My life is a gift. And I plan on living it with hope, courage, and purpose, from this day forward."

—Tanya McLaughlin