Family House Diaries: Beating cancer recurrence time and again

Wednesday, July 8, 2009 — This is the third in a new series from UNC Health Care that focuses on the stories of UNC Hospitals patients and their families who live in the SECU Family House at UNC Hospitals while receiving or awaiting treatment.

Family House Diaries: Beating cancer recurrence time and again click to enlarge Tammy Blankenship with her daughters Jade, left, and Anna and her husband, Darwin, at SECU Family House in Chapel Hill.

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care

Three recurrences of cervical cancer hasn’t stopped Tammy Blankenship from living life to the fullest.

“Just because I have cancer doesn’t mean I stop living,” said Blankenship, 39, an administrative assistant with Progress Energy and former long-time resident of Goldsboro, N.C., who, with her husband of 19 years, Darwin, has adopted Natalie Jade, 4, and is in process of adopting Anna Rose, nearly 3.

“I know many people are thinking how incredibly selfish I must be to adopt these girls with what I’m going through with cancer,” Tammy said. “But my faith guides me to help others, and it is the giving back that sustains me. These little girls desperately needed a mother, but I needed them more. I am still alive due to multiple miracles. Clearly, I’m still here for a reason.”

Tammy was told in November 2006 that she had six to nine months to live, this after a second recurrence of cervical cancer that was first diagnosed and successfully treated with surgery in 2003. The cancer came back in odd places – in lymph nodes along her aorta in 2005 – and by early 2006, in more lymph nodes, in her lungs and along her spine.

Various surgeries, chemotherapies and radiation had taken their toll on Tammy’s body, and were beginning to erode her spirit.Now on extended medical leave, Tammy and Darwin, a health care electrical designer for The East Group of Greenville, N.C., moved from Goldsboro to West Virginia to be near their families and a strong church family to live out what all thought were Tammy’s last days.

Since her initial diagnosis, Tammy has been under the care of Paola Gehrig, M.D., associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology in the division of gynecologic oncology at the UNC School of Medicine. “I’ve had a bond with her since day one,” Tammy said. “She makes me feel like a colleague in this fight, not just a patient. We’re definitely a team.”

Still, upon moving to West Virginia, Tammy sought two medical consults. The first offered no hope, but Michael Shiano, M.D., of West Virginia GYN Oncology, believed that “‘the statistics were bad, but as long as there is a one percent chance, it may as well be me.’ That restored my courage,” Tammy said, “and continues to help me fight each day.”

Continued care from Gehrig and the multi-disciplinary team at UNC Hospitals, along with support from many churches and extra prayers followed. Tammy also began praying harder for herself, something that had never come easy for her. Then, a scan in March 2006 showed no presence of cancer anywhere in Tammy’s body. Another scan two months later, after additional chemotherapy, confirmed the miracle.

“Tammy is a remarkable woman who is surrounded by a wonderful and supportive family,” Gehrig said. “She has fought this illness with a grace and determination that is inspirational. She is willing to undergo any procedures, tests or treatments as long as there is a chance that it may help so that she can be there for her family and friends. She has a tireless spirit and it has been and continues to be my privilege to partner with her in this journey.”

With the cancer gone, Tammy and Darwin focused their attention on making a family of their own through adoption. His sister-in-law, Sarah, actually brought Jade home from the hospital and fostered her when they decided to adopt her. They’ve had Anna since her birth in 2006.

A third recurrence of the cancer earlier this year, this time in Tammy’s neck, necessitated minor surgery (with Mark Weissler, M.D. in otolaryngology/head and neck surgery), followed by radiation (with Mahesh Varia, M.B.B.Ch.) and chemotherapy. Drs. Gehrig, Weissler and Varia recommended chemotherapy and radiation, the latter requiring an extended stay in Chapel Hill.

Tammy decided to forego the radiation because she wanted Jade and Anna with her and she wasn’t willing to impose on friends for such a long stay. She also couldn’t afford a hotel for the nearly six weeks of treatment, even though Darwin has a good job and is still working.

Enter the State Employees Credit Union (SECU) Family House, a 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes from UNC Hospitals that provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for adult patients undergoing treatment for critical illness and trauma and their family member caretakers. Tammy and her girls lived there nearly seven weeks, with the girls accompanying Tammy to all 37 radiation treatments.

“I changed my decision about rejecting the radiation because I was able to be in a supportive and affordable environment with Jade and Anna,” Tammy said. “It was a logistical decision with life-saving consequences. The home-like atmosphere, the shuttle to and from the hospital, the food, the kindnesses of staff and others staying at Family House, we were blessed every day.”

Tammy completed her radiation and is returning to UNC Hospitals every month for chemotherapy. While she is in Chapel Hill, Tammy continues to stay at SECU Family House, her true home away from home.

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