Tanaya Joy was just 35 when a routine physical uncovered something that would’ve frightened most women.
“You have a lump that I can’t feel the bottom of. I want you to do a mammogram and an ultrasound.”
Tanaya, however, is not most women.
Having lived with fibrocystic breast tissue for the past decade, lumps were just another thing that Tanaya had to conquer in her already busy life. Two beautiful children and an outgoing husband consumed her time-- not ultrasounds and mammograms. With the holidays just around the corner, Tanaya asks if the ultrasound and mammogram can wait until January. The answer she gets, however, leaves her unsettled.
“The doctor was persistent,” she recounts. “He schedules me for the following week. Very quickly.”
Tanaya maintains her optimistic demeanor. The same relentless positivity, in fact, that motivated her to open all but one of BIBIBOP’s nationwide locations.
She completes her mammogram and ultrasound, per the doctor’s orders, and awaits the results. Her follow up appointment would be on a November morning. 9 o’clock to be exact.
“I was just expecting to hear next steps,” Tanaya recalls. But when her almost stoic doctor starts asking detailed questions about her family history and suggests genetic testing, Tanaya grows concerned. “He was being so passive.” When his conversation moves toward a lumpectomy that would leave her deformed, Tanaya finally demands clarity. The response she receives creates a moment she’ll never forget.
“I just remember him saying, ‘Well, when you have cancer…’”
And that’s it. The room fades to whiteness. Tanaya is hearing the noise of the doctor’s words and watching his lips move, but not comprehending what’s going on. Silent streams of tears flood down her cheeks, involuntarily. Her emotionless physician stays determined to not give into compassion by handing her a rough paper towel and asking if she has any questions.
But for someone like Tanaya, there are no questions right now. Only action.
“You have to get it together. You have to walk out of this room.” she tells herself, like a soldier preparing for battle.
(Told you she’s not like most women.)
The next steps include an actual biopsy to confirm what the doctor has already declared. Cancer. The biopsy is scheduled for Friday. Tanaya’s support system assumes their position at her side through it all.
Fast forward to November 22nd, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Tanaya receives a call from an unfamiliar number on her way home from work. She flashes back to her original meeting with her doctor and recalls agreeing to receiving her results via phone call. Hastily, she answers.
““I just want you to know we got your results back. Tests are positive for the cancer. We need to move forward with scheduling your MRI.. Any questions?”
Fed up with a doctor who seemingly has no empathy in his extremely educated body, Tanaya rings her family doctor. His advice to her? “You need to stop doing this alone.”
With a confirmed cancer diagnosis and some new-found counsel from a trusted source, Tanaya resolves to no longer “do this alone.” She calls all of her friends from as far back as 7th grade and invites them out that night.
“I told all of my friends at a bar that I have cancer,” she laughs, adding that she's not a drinker.
The follow up appointment is scheduled for November 28th. Tanaya will have to sit with her diagnosis and not a ton of answers through the Thanksgiving holiday. She persists with positivity, resolving to stay strong for her husband and children. That is, until Thanksgiving dinner.
“We were sitting at the table at Thanksgiving dinner and someone said to me, ‘You know, I wonder what you’ll look like without any hair.’ At that point, my hair sat at the top of my jeans. It was a huge part of me. I’ve always been the girl with super long hair. I hadn’t even let myself think that far.” With this revelation comes a flood of others. “Am I going to die? Am I going to live to see my children married?”
Luckily, Tanaya’s support system does not allow her to dwell in the unknown for long. She receives a referral from a friend to The James Cancer Hospital and a new doctor who not only offers empathy but clarity to her diagnosis. Also, Tanaya’s sister-in-law, a nurse, would accompany her to appointments and relay the complex information in digestible terms.
Tanaya’s cancer was Stage 2, Hormone positive and HER2 Negative. They would definitely need to remove the cancer, but it was not an aggressive form, as her previous doctor’s urgency would’ve lead her to believe.
Now that she has some answers, a firm support system and a compassionate doctor, Tanaya would move forward with surgery. January 3rd was the date, so that she could enjoy Christmas with her children and husband.
“I had to decide,” she recalls, “if I would have surgery on just the right side or both.”
After asking the universe for a sign, Tanaya decides to move forward with a bilateral mastectomy.
“I told my nurse that I’d cut her a deal. They quit poking and prodding me and they can have them both.”
I asked Tanaya to describe the moment she found out she was in remission.
“Most people would say it’s a relief, for me, it almost is just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Every appointment, every milestone, you’re worried it might be the last one. Because they don’t know what caused it. On one hand, it’s great. But there’s the fear that’s in the back of your head doesn’t ever really go away.”
Helping her cope with that fear is her continued dedication to raising awareness and helping other women in her position. Tanaya and her husband participate with a Bowl for a Cure fundraiser every April. Her 13 year old son Dominic is a “walking awareness ribbon,” Tanaya says. “It’s his whole life. His favorite color is pink. His soccer cleats are pink. He notices when we’re out at a restaurant if someone is drinking from a pink straw.” Her youngest, Merik, however, was young enough to not experience the weight of his mom having cancer. “He was about three or four,” Tanaya explains. “It just didn’t happen to him.”
But for the women that breast cancer continues to happen to, Tanaya volunteers her time as a Warrior with The James. She shares her story and offers advice and support. “It’s very humbling,” she says. “You’re with people at the most vulnerable time in their lives.”
So what’s Tanaya’s advice to women who are newly diagnosed or battling breast cancer?
“Stay off the internet. Find someone who has gone through it and get hooked up with them.” And of course, “Take care always.”
Tanaya Joy Candella is a Sr. Development Manager for BIBBOP, a loving mother of two, a caring wife, an avid bowler, a sometimes scrapbooker and a breast cancer survivor.