Forever a PINK warrior: Sutton uses faith and strength to fight cancer battle
She is a believer. A believer that God has a plan for her. A believer that it was divine intervention that led to her diagnosis earlier this year and a believer that God’s plan has gotten her through the months of grueling treatments and a double mastectomy.
She is thankful. Thankful to be alive, to have a wonderful and supportive family, and a network of friends who have found ways to make her feel special while dealing with a pandemic and the challenges that come with a cancer diagnosis that came without warning.
She is a fighter. Tracy Jo Sutton, or TJ as she is known to many, said that although cancer decided the journey, she decided to fight and will forever be a PINK warrior.
She describes herself as an open book and hopes that by sharing her story, the good and the bad, others will benefit. Sometimes it is the hardest part of the fight against cancer that is the most important to share, she said.
While most were dealing with the impact of COVID-19, she was facing the uncertainty of breast cancer. On March 13, at the age of 43 and the beginning of the quarantine, the call she had been dreading came, confirming she had breast cancer.
“I did not hear anything else. I felt numb. I had known it was. I just knew. I needed to talk with my five daughters (ages 8-19) about my results. I could tell which ones were scared and which ones were in denial. My nine-year-old was crying and said, ‘Why would God do this to you?’ My response without hesitation was ‘Maybe I have cancer to be a voice and help other women,’” she said. “I was one of those women who never checked their breasts. When I say never, I mean the doctor checks them at your OB/GYN appointments right? I had heard the statistics that 1 in 8 women will get breast cancer. I just never thought I would be that 1 in 8. It is so important to catch this early.”
Instead of giving in, she said she focused on her strength and her belief she would kick cancer. That was the message she shared with her children, husband and friends.
Sometimes living one day at a time is all you can handle, she said. Not what is happening next week or next month but what needs to be done now today, and tomorrow.
Tough to do under normal circumstances, but adding in the changes the pandemic brought along with intensive medical treatment was challenging.
“There are 7 of us in our home and everyone stepped in one way or another to help. I tried to keep life as normal as possible. Some days they wouldn’t see me because I was sick or we would have a movie day if I was worn down. When one of us was feeling down the other worked to bring spirits back up and to be reminded that it won’t be like this forever. The kids are still homeschooled and the older ones are still not working because I am high risk.”
Less than two weeks ago, Sutton underwent a double mastectomy 8 months after finding the lump on her breast through self-examination.
Sutton said after finding a cyst on her back, she visited her doctor and just happened to pick up a brochure that you can hang in the shower as a reminder to do monthly checks. She remembers thinking she should do that. The next time she showered, she thought about the brochure and checked… and found a lump.
“Panic came over me. Was this cancer? I knew it was, I am not sure how, I just knew. My thought process went something like this, what does a lump even feel like? Shouldn’t they be teaching us what to feel for? What doctor am I supposed to call? Regular or OB/GYN? My health insurance doesn’t start until April 1. Will they cover this because it is now a pre-existing condition? That was my panic,” she said.
Sutton had a mammogram and ultrasound in early March followed by an ultrasound-guided biopsy. Five days after getting confirmation of the diagnosis, she had a lymph node biopsy.
The official diagnosis was left breast invasive ductal carcinoma, Grade 3, Stage IIIA/IIB. She needed to start chemotherapy followed by surgery.
The chemotherapy was rough. It made her anxious and very sick. By May 1, she had lost her hair. After she started Taxol, she lost her eyelashes and eyebrows.
“I noticed that when I went to put on mascara as I did for my weekly appointments, it went straight on my eyelid. One of the hardest parts of the journey has been I do not recognize myself when I look in the mirror,” Sutton said.
The treatments continued. Finally on August 28, she “rang that bell” and closed that chapter of her life. An MRI in June had shown signs that no cancer was detected. Once the treatments were done, she moved on to the next phase. The double mastectomy on October 7.
“What happens next will depend on what they find. I had lymph nodes removed to check for any cancer and they came back clear. The rest, it may take another week to find out the results. If anything comes back with cancer cells, I will start 6 weeks of radiation,” Sutton said.
If not, she will begin preparing for breast reconstruction. She has opted for what is called DIEP flap surgery where surgeons take tissue from the stomach to create new breasts. That will be followed by a 5-year hormone therapy treatment program, cancer checks and another surgery to remove her ovaries or have a hysterectomy.
Sutton underwent genetic testing that all came back negative but due to her age, her daughters will have to start mammograms at age 30.
Her daughters, nicknamed the Fantastic 5, have been with her every step of the way, along with her husband of two years, Kaleb Tallmage, whom she describes as an amazing man.
Originally from St. Louis, Sutton spent weekends and summers coming to the lake. She had always said when she was old enough to move, the lake was where she wanted to be. In January of 2000, she did just that. The lake area, she said, is like a big family.
While there is still much ahead, Sutton hasn’t given up, hasn’t stopped believing and continues to look forward. Giving up and not fighting back just isn’t in her nature. She will continue to fight and share her journey with others, always hoping her experience can help someone else.
“I am so thankful for all the signs that led me to check my breasts. Even my doctor said that it was divine intervention if she had ever heard it. I do believe God has a plan for me. I am thankful to be alive,” she said.”Please do monthly checks, please get mammograms, and please remind your loved ones. Early detection is the key.”