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Positive attitude helps cancer battle

Brian Korthals/Daily Globe Tammy Hall, Windom, a breast cancer survivor, was the inspiration behind the inaugural Breast Health Fund Walk Saturday. The idea of the fundraiser was Tammy's daughter Tyann Marcy. The fundraisers hope is to eventually purchase a digital mammography machine.

WINDOM -- According to Tammy Hall of Windom, attitude is everything when it comes to a battle, which is why she surrounded herself with positive people when she was diagnosed with breast cancer last winter.

"If a person wasn't positive, I didn't need them around me," she said.

Not only is Tammy a breast cancer survivor, but she's hoping to make a difference for others who have a battle of their own to fight. The inaugural Breast Health Fund Walk took place Oct. 15, with the proceeds going to a fund that will someday be used to purchase a digital mammography machine.

It hasn't quite been a year since Tammy's diagnosis, but between rounds of chemo, a major surgery, radiation therapy and running a full-time business -- State Farm Insurance -- she's also managed, with considerable help from others, to raise more than $25,000 to go toward the machine.

Diagnosis, chemo and ginger

On Nov. 9, 2010, Tammy felt a thickening on her breast, and went into the doctor that same day. Because the Windom Area Hospital does not have a digital mammography machine, she was told she would have to wait for a mammogram. A truck comes to the hospital once a week, but all appointments were filled for the next few weeks.

Luckily, there was a cancellation and Tammy was able to get a last-minute appointment on the following Monday. But in those six days, she found another lump -- this one under her arm.

An ultrasound was performed right after the mammogram, and things moved quickly after that. Two days later, Tammy was at the Breast Health Institute in Sioux Falls, S.D., and by Friday, Tammy was informed she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Her type of cancer, known as triple negative, is clinically characterized as more aggressive and less responsive to standard treatment. It is also associated with poorer overall patient prognosis.

So off she went, to chemo-school.

"Yes, you have to take a class before you can have chemotherapy," Tammy said. "You have to pass the class, and they tell you to bring a responsible adult with you."

She had her first round of chemo on Dec. 2 after having a pet scan, brain scan and installation of a port. Because her cancer was very aggressive and had spread to her lymph nodes, the chemo was done at two-week intervals.

"My daughter bought me eight bracelets, and every time I had a round of chemo, I'd take one off and give it to the person who had done the treatment," Tammy said.

Her daughter Tyann Marcy and husband Mark were extremely supportive, as were her two sons.

"I am really blessed. I have an awesome husband who never missed an appointment, Tyann was there for so much and my two sons took care of the homefront," Tammy said. "My team here kept the office afloat -- they are such troopers."

She told her staff they could cry and be sad the first day she informed them of her diagnosis, but after that there would be no more tears because it was time to move forward.

Tyann said she didn't feel sadness or anger when her mother shared the news, but admitted to being scared. Her father, she said, just wanted assurance that everything would eventually be OK.

Chemo was a challenge, and Tammy said there was one point on the way to a session when she broke down crying and told Mark if the cancer ever came back she wasn't going to undergo chemotherapy again.

"Now, I'd do it," she admitted, likening the sessions and side effects to getting through the pain of childbirth. "You just do it."

She learned the tricks of dealing with chemo -- something she admits she was afraid of.

"You hear all the horror stories, and it is not pleasant," Tammy said. "Heartburn, nausea and the bone pain. Then there's the visible stuff -- you lose your hair, get puffy. I lost my fingernails and had the dry mouth."

She had been told that ginger ale would help the nausea and dry mouth, so Mark headed for the store.

"He came home with one of everything that had the word ginger on it," she said, shaking with laughter. "It turns out I don't like ginger."

Using plasticware to battle the taste of metal, drinking out of a straw and giving up her favorite diet Cokes for the duration, Tammy got through the chemo with the support of family, friends and the community.

Surgery and statistics

Nine days after the last chemo session, Tammy underwent a double mastectomy. The surgery almost didn't happen on schedule, because three days before it was supposed to take place she was informed she had Influenza A.

"I never knew it. I never noticed the symptoms. I had just come off chemo," she pointed out.

After the surgery was radiation treatment. Tammy said she went from diagnosis to done in exactly seven months.

"When it happens, you learn not to take every day for granted," she said. "I hope I always remember it -- that I don't go back to my same old routine and forget."

Tammy also learned how wonderful people are, she said. Outpourings of concern, prayers and love helped her get through her battle, something she never wants to forget. She also spoke to others who had fought breast cancer, and found it reassuring.

"It was comforting," she admitted. "They were still alive."

Having a good relationship with doctors was important, as was the help of a breast cancer advocate, but the best thing Tammy said she did for herself was to surround herself with positive people and remember to keep laughing.

"That's how you get through it," she said.

The idea of raising funds to buy a mammogram machine for their local hospital was the brain child of Tyann, Tammy said. A digital machine will cost about $190,000, which Tyann was hoping to raise in a year.

"That's not happening," Tyann admitted with a grin.

Speaking to the hospital board, setting up a fund, organizing the walk -- all of it was done because of her mother, Tyann said.

"Well, that and my odds just went up," she said with a laugh. "I might need it."

Statistics show 1 in 8 women will be affected by breast cancer in their lifetime, she said, which seems pretty small when you're that one.

"It really touches home that it is everywhere," she added.

The Breast Health Fund Walk brought out almost 400 walkers, Tammy said, and donations were great.

"It was an amazing, beautiful and emotional day," she stated.

Anyone interested in donating to the fund can contact Tammy at 507-832-9378 or Tyann at 507-822-6291.