'I'm focusing on beating this'

Marie Havenga • Oct 22, 2016 at 9:00 AM

Last winter, Sandy Klaassen bought pink ties so the staff at Klaassen Family Funeral Home could wear them this month in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Little did she know then that breast cancer would strike one of their own.

In July, Sandy's daughter, Tammy, found a lump on her right breast when she was in the shower.

“It really popped up as a pretty large mass,” said Tammy, a 46-year-old mother of three. “I was kind of in denial — Oh, it's nothing, it will go away.”

But it didn't just go away. Instead, the lump grew larger. So did her fears.

“By the time I got to the doctor two weeks later, it had grown quite a bit,” the Grand Haven woman said.

The doctor ordered a 3-D mammogram and a biopsy.

Then the call came, with the words that stilled her soul: It is cancer.

“Although my diagnosis temporarily shook me to the core, it didn't take long to figure out there were two ways to handle it — with fear and uncertainty, or with trust and confidence,” Tammy said. “Cancer is big, but my faith is bigger.”

When she first felt the tumor in the shower, it was about 2 inches in diameter. By the time she was diagnosed a few short weeks later, it had grown to 3 1/2 inches.

Doctors told her it was a fairly aggressive, ductile invasive breast cancer, but that she had caught it while it was still stage 2.

“They don't think it's going anywhere else,” Tammy said.

She started five months of chemotherapy on Aug. 10.

“I'm bald as a cue ball,” she said.

Tammy will undergo genetic testing and a single mastectomy, possibly a double mastectomy — depending on if the genetic test results show she is high risk. The genetic testing will also determine if her children — Deacon, 17; Molly Jane, 15; and Lance, 12, are at risk.

Her grandfather had cancer. So did her father.

Sandy said four of her mother’s (Tammy's grandmother) sisters have all died from breast cancer.

The diagnosis brought a never-ending barrage of thoughts, prayers, feelings, emotions and learning.

“When you find out you have cancer, there's a huge amount of information you have to learn,” Tammy said. “And I'm still learning. You're kind of in shock. It's a good way to feel clueless and uneducated in a hurry. Once you have it yourself, it all becomes crazy. It's a whole new experience.”

Sandy and Dave Klaassen were enjoying Coast Guard Festival week when their daughter told them the news.

“I felt the wind knocked out of me,” Sandy said. “I sat down and all she kept saying is 'Mom, it's OK, it's OK.’ I had to keep convincing myself of that, and during the rest of the busy week kept telling myself, 'Put on your happy face and be as confident as she was.' And she still is.”

Tammy's dad, Dave, also took the news hard.

“My dad looked obviously shaken,” Tammy said. “He gave me a big hug and said, 'I hear you have terrible news.'”

But Tammy dug for the good.

“I said, 'No, actually, I think it could have been a lot worse,'” she remembers saying. “I thought I would walk into the surgeon and be told, 'You have stage 4, you have six months to live.' I was actually relieved when they said it was stage 2. I was thinking it could be a whole lot worse.”

Tammy finds the strength to still work two days a week, waiting tables at Stanz Cafe in Grand Haven. Her co-workers have donned pink bandanas, just as she does to hide her bald head, in solidarity.

She gains strength from the support of her children, family and friends.

She's not thinking about dying. Instead, she's focusing on living.

Friday night, her eldest son, Deacon, wore his “purple pride” football jersey with a pink ribbon on it for Grand Haven High School's last home football game.

Tammy says she feels the love and support everywhere she turns.

“There really hasn't been a day that I thought I couldn't beat it,” she said. “It's not a question of if I will survive it, it's when. I'm focusing on beating this and I'll get back to my life.”

Still, Tammy continuously researches the topic. She knows the realities, that cancer could return, at any time, any place.

“There's a significant chance it could return in five or seven years,” she said. “It could come back in a different place. It could come back more aggressive or in a more difficult type to beat.”

But she doesn't want to go there. Not now. Not ever. These moments are reserved for confidence and gratitude, for family and community, for believing everything will be OK.

“I feel very fortunate and blessed that I have a form that is treatable,” Tammy said. “I feel 100 percent confident that this is going to be a successful treatment plan. I am not one to preach and my faith is a very personal thing. But God is the source of my confidence and trust, strength and peace.”

Tammy said she's learning much through this ordeal — not just about her disease, but about what is truly important in life.

“Tomorrow isn't guaranteed,” she said. “Slow down. Who cares if the house is clean, right? Invest additional time in your children. Since the diagnosis, I've scheduled alone time with each, one on one, to play board games, or video games, go out for dinner, walk the dog together, just talk.”

She's taking time for herself, too — to take long baths, naps, spend time with friends. She plans to go back to school soon to complete her master's degree in counseling.

And Tammy says she’s learned to savor each moment, take nothing for granted, reconnect with old friends, mend fractured relationships, apologize when needed and to be thankful for the little things.

“Tell others you love them, and tell them often,” she said. “I'm committed to spinning these life challenges into positives. I want and need to focus on the good in all of it.

“I hope to be an example of hope, strength, perseverance, and use my experience to help someone else navigate the path from diagnosis to treatment or surgery to survival.”

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