Tamara Greenwell was on a camping trip when she was performing the acrobatics of changing her shirt in a cramped, low tent.
“I hit my boob — and it hurt,” she said.
After she returned home, she scheduled an ultrasound. When the radiologist came in immediately afterward to talk with her, she knew something was wrong. The clinic scheduled a biopsy for the following week.
Just two months earlier, her mammogram had shown no irregularities, but the biopsy found a stage 2 tumor that was rapidly growing.
No one in Greenwell’s family had a history of breast cancer.
“I never saw cancer coming at 44,” she said. “I heard and saw breast cancer in my peripheral, but never thought it would affect me.”
Confronting breast cancer
Based on presurgical imaging, Greenwell’s doctor believed the cancer hadn’t spread and scheduled a lumpectomy. But after genetic testing, they discovered Greenwell had a rare genetic marker that increased her chances of breast cancer recurring. Instead of a lumpectomy, her doctor scheduled a double mastectomy.
“We had a Ta-Ta to Titties party,” Greenwell said. “I couldn’t change the fact that I had cancer, but I got to decide how to respond to it.”
A few days after her surgery, she learned cancer had spread to one lymph node.
“I had the full-meal deal: surgery, five months of chemotherapy, and six weeks of radiation. Because of my age, they wanted to throw everything at it,” she said.
Greenwell has a busy job as a communications director with Washington State Department of Transportation. During her treatment and recovery, she missed many work days. To ease her financial burden, her co-workers donated more than 1,000 hours of sick leave.
Shortly after she was diagnosed, Greenwell struggled with what she should tell people. Who should she tell? How much information was appropriate to share?
“I asked myself: Do I hide this or tell people what I’m going through?” Greenwell said. “It’s not in me to hide something, so I shared with others. Being vulnerable made a difference.”
As part of her treatment, Greenwell has been prescribed a regimen of medications. Most have side effects that caused other problems. Some made her feel much worse. To reduce the risks of cancer coming back, her doctor prescribed tamoxifen, which blocks the body’s ability to produce the types of hormones cancer cells need to grow. Greenwell returns to the oncology center monthly for injections that suppress ovarian function and put her into early menopause. She also experienced headaches, fatigue, blurred vision, libido changes and foggy brain. The mental fog was so persistent that her doctor took her off the tamoxifen and prescribed other hormone blockers.
Two years after her diagnosis, Greenwell takes several medications related to her cancer, and continues to work with her medical team to find the right balance of cancer-preventing medications and their many side effects. She will continue taking some of these drugs for a long time.
As time passed, she couldn’t shake her ever-present exhaustion. As an active person, she’s struggled with the reality that she wouldn’t feel better unless she slowed down and took care of herself. At the direction of her medical team, she recently took a three-month leave of absence from work so she could rest, recharge and rebuild after being beaten down not only by cancer, but also by the treatments and side effects.
“I recognize my energy isn’t going to be the level it was before cancer. Although my hair is coming back, my brain and my body are not working the same as before,” Greenwell said. “Breast cancer is a hard road. When I was diagnosed, I didn’t know how hard it would be. I thought they’d just take a piece out of me, and I’d go on.”
During a Pink Lemonade Project virtual meeting of breast cancer survivors, Catch-22 paddler Britten Witherspoon invited Greenwell to dragon boat practice at Vancouver Lake.
Greenwell recalled, “The minute I felt the power of 20 people moving with power at the same time, I said, ‘Sign me up!’
“It’s difficult to describe the feeling of camaraderie, the strength, the power I’m putting back into my life after being so low. The camaraderie in dragon boating is deep. People brought me dinners, mowed my lawn. The news is filled with things going wrong in the world, but I think there are plenty of things going right, right here in Clark County. When we’re on the boat, we’re all paddling in the same direction. When we’re off the boat, we’re all available to help support each other. There’s a real beauty in how community steps up to support each other in need.
“The doctors and nurses helped to save my life with treatments and surgeries, but the dragon boating community has saved my spirit.”
Greenwell’s faith in humanity was renewed. When she needed help, family, friends and co-workers stepped up. In the middle of her chemo treatments, she and her partner bought a house. Her co-workers and people she had met through Leadership Clark County — 19 people in all — helped them move while she rested.
“I’m a little bit of a control person, and I had to learn to let go and accept help with grace,” she said. “They packed everything. Nothing got broken. Nothing got lost. It helped me maintain my strength to go through the treatments.”
Throughout her treatment and recovery, Greenwell has felt embraced. People sent her encouraging notes, dropped off meals, knit her hats to cover her bald head after she lost her hair with chemotherapy. On her last day of chemo, people showed up with flowers and balloons.
In April, she traveled to New Zealand with a group of breast cancer survivors called Pacific Northwest Pink Lemonade (a combination of her Catch 22 team from Vancouver and the Pink Phoenix team from Portland) to paddle in the International Breast Cancer Dragon Boat Participatory Festival on Lake Karapiro. Her family accompanied her to cheer her on.
“My 13-year-old son told me, ‘Mom, you lost so much because of the cancer, but you gained so much,’ ” Greenwell said. “It’s so true. I’m not thankful for cancer, but I’m much more grateful for where I am now.”