What would you do if you were told you were most certainly going to die?
Would you accept your fate or would you do anything in your power to stay alive?
For many of you, I know this is not a hypothetical question. In fact, it is a reality of your life. Even if you were diagnosed with early stage cancer, once you here that “c” word, your view of your mortality is forever changed.
I’m Tami Boehmer, a wife, mother, author, blogger and stage IV breast cancer survivor. In February 2008 I heard those words from well-respected oncologist and researcher at the number 2 cancer center in the nation. The stage II breast cancer that I thought I had beat five years previously came back with a vengeance, spreading to my armpit, chest and liver. I traveled all the way from Ohio to Texas, looking for hope and instead received a death sentence.
The oncologist there told me I’d “most certainly die of breast cancer.”
My husband Mike squeezed my hand as we both started to cry. I knew my prognosis wasn’t great, but hearing those words was devastating. What about my daughter Chrissy? She was only in third grade, and she needed me. It all seemed so unreal. Then this little seed of strength emerged as I responded, “I’m too stubborn to die.”
I quit my stressful job and decided to make “taking care of Tami” my new career. In the midst of doing everything I could to stay alive – surgery, chemo, an anti-cancer diet, mega supplements, prayer, affirmations and every modality I could think of – I started to feel depressed. Frankly, “taking care of Tami” became a little boring and it gave me way too much time to think and worry about my impending demise.
Every day, I felt like I was desperately trying to climb out of a hole of depression. I knew I had to keep it together for my daughter, who was just nine at the time. Finally, something shifted. My idea for my second act came to me during a family fishing vacation in Canada. As I was walking around a beautiful lake, I reflected on my career and what inspired me. Ironically, I worked in health care public relations for more than 20 years. I loved writing and reading success stories of people overcoming health obstacles. What if I could find what I called “miracle survivors,” – other people who had advanced cancer who were told they were going to die sooner; not later, but they didn’t?
Having no hope is a terrible place to be. You feel like you’re drowning in an ocean waiting to die. I wanted to hear and share these stories to rescue myself and others. Eventually I published my first book, From Incurable to Incredible, a collection of 27 stories of people, representing different types of stage IV cancer, who overcame the odds.
Over the years, I’ve interviewed and connected with more than a hundred people with advanced cancer who have lived years beyond what was predicted by grim statistics and studies. Some of them have been living with no evidence of disease for years, even decades!
This past November, Skyhorse Publishing in New York City released my second book, Miracle Survivors: Beating the Odds of Incurable Cancer. There are more stories and more inspiration from people like me who are overcoming by having no evidence of disease or living well with cancer.
I consider my work my mission in life. I am always available to help fellow stage IV survivors. I volunteer as a mentor with an organization called Imerman Angels and with my local support group, serve on patient advisory panels, and do speaking engagements whenever the opportunity arises. I have ongoing dialogue with fellow survivors in my online communities. And I try to help educate to the public what it means to have metastatic breast cancer and the need for more research dollars through my blog MiracleSurvivors.com, online, radio and TV shows and in newspaper and magazine articles.
At the time when I was first diagnosed, I couldn’t find anyone who was talking about stage IV cancer with any hope. All I heard about was death. Now I’m finding more books, media stories, and documentaries such as the Emperor of All Maladies, that are shedding a light of hope for people like me who need it.
My message isn’t just about cancer; it’s about overcoming. It’s about going through fear instead of hiding from it. It’s about giving and receiving and turning a negative situation into something positive. When it comes down to it, it’s about living and loving even in the worst of circumstances.
Me? I’m still living with cancer. I’m doing well, but my life is uncertain. Every few months, I go into a scanner and see if the treatment I’m on is still working. Part of my second act is learning to be my own advocate and teaching others to do the same. I research new treatments and trials, get second, third, fourth opinions; and ask plenty of informed questions. My view is that no one is as committed to saving my life than me. And I believe that is one of the reasons I’m beating the odds.
Cancer for me has been a turning point in my life. I would never have predicted that I’d be a published author and speaker. I used to be incredibly shy and unsure of myself. I finally feel I am doing work that I truly feel passionate about and am making a difference by speaking and advocating for other stage IV survivors. Cancer has peeled away many fears, such as public speaking and worrying what others think of me. I know if I can stand here today, more than seven years after getting a death sentence, the trivial things such as possibly embarrassing myself, are really nothing.
I am so blessed to be connected to so many wonderful survivors through my work. I feel as if I can go to any part of the country and will have friends to visit. I’ve found that everything I give is given back to me tenfold. There is a circle of giving and receiving in the cancer community that is like no other. I have experienced how kind people, even total strangers, can be when you need help the most. Cancer has taught me to be vulnerable once in a while and accept this help. I don’t always have to be strong.
My daughter was three when I was first diagnosed in 2002 with stage 2 cancer; now she is 16 and almost done with her sophomore year of high school. I don’t know if I would be as incredibly touched by each of her milestones – her first high school band performance, boyfriend, learning to drive – if I didn’t hear the words, “You will most certainly die of breast cancer.”
I would never say my cancer was a gift, but the experience and opportunities that have come to me since hearing those words has certainly brought many gifts to my life. I believe my second act – sharing my story and those of others – is helping me save my life. And for that, I’m very grateful.
Editors note: Tami passed away in November last year. Her books are still for sale and she remains an inspiration to many.