We’re so happy to share the story of Tara Sparks, a North Carolina breast cancer survivor who’s not afraid to ‘say it like it is.’ Tara’s raw and uninhibited insight into the world of cancer will set you straight about how to talk, act and be around cancer patients if you’re a friend of a patient, as well as how to not go insane if you’re a patient yourself. She’ll take you with her on the rollercoaster ride of her life, sharing powerful memories and the good, the bad, and the ugly of cancer. Here’s our interview with her:
How does it feel when you’re diagnosed with cancer?
I felt like my world was over. I had just turned 42, my little guy only had just turned 5 when I found my lump. I knew his innocent world would be abruptly uprooted, tearing apart the comfortable home we’d created. Our home would now be filled with worry over my health, meals, money, and teaching our five year old how to become independent. I knew it was breast cancer. Just knew it. When you’re diagnosed with cancer, your entire world as you know it crumbles beneath you. You become maniacal to an extreme. You feel as if you’re falling and can’t get footing….going to fall into a deep dark void. I immediately began thinking what breast cancer, surgery and chemotherapy would do to me, and what stage and prognosis I was looking at. I just knew it would turn me into a shell of my former self, and it did; in a sense. But my “self” is SO much better today!
What is some advice you would give to cancer patients?
You must stay true to your heart. You must stick to your core beliefs, what makes you so extraordinary will help you fight cancer and come back stronger. We are weak. We are manic. About everything. I was a raving lunatic. You are not in your right state of mind during treatment. Honestly with all the medicines I was taking, I know other cancer patients must consume these as well, we should not even be held accountable for most our actions. Chemo is one hell of a drug, for real. Laugh. Laugh all you can. Laugh at the stupid shit. Those armpit farts caused by expanders, laugh. The bowels that won’t move. Two fuzzy sprouts on your head, laugh at all that shit. Try to keep your mind as positive as possible.
How do you want your friends and family to treat you during your cancer treatment?
We want you to love us. To accept us. For who we are, and for what we’ll become during and after treatment. Allow us that crying jag. Allow us that pity party. I mourned the loss of my breasts, I still do to this day; some 500 days after amputation. We listen to your problems, give us our time. We don’t want to hear how we should do it this way or that. We want your love, your hand on our shoulder, your empathy while we babble incoherently because our minds are mush due to all of the damned medicines. We need you to allow us to be. Just be. Laugh with us.
It’s okay to make inappropriate jokes….I mean, why not?? Cancer didn’t consider invading your body, why should we be mindful of not offending cancer? Fuck that shit, seriously. Cancer is scary, dangerous, and has affected almost all of us in one way or another. We do us. You do you. Got it?
I’m grateful for companies like LumpyCards for providing merchandise we can laugh and a supportive community. We need silly shit, gentle tones, smiles, goofy shit. Make us laugh. Cancer scares us all. And it’s ugly too. You will probably end up with poop on your hand at one point…
Shame on you if you turn your fear into an attack on a cancer patient; that act is more debilitating than you will ever know. Shame on you for projecting onto us. Those who come in peoples lives under false guises of love, should have to wear an asshole sticker on their foreheads (get on that, LumpyCards, sell those stickers!). Sidenote: if you make promises to a cancer patient regarding doctor appointments, childcare arrangements, support, or food; please follow up on them. Or don’t even bother. Not being bitchy or ungrateful, just honest folks.
If you say you’re picking them up at 7, you better damn well pick them up. It’s just too much of a disappointment and unnecessary stress. While it’s a good gesture to offer dinner, don’t fail to follow through for a chemo patient who can barely stand, let alone cook. Be thoughtful. Follow through. Call to their favorite pizza place and schedule delivery. Get lots of fruits, nuts, and veggies for the patient; and good sweets for the caregiver.
The caregiver is grossly overlooked during treatment. They take a lot of responsibility, and if done properly, you won’t even notice. The caregiver will make you feel safe and secure while you’re deliriously mental.
A good caregiver will not complain, balk, or audibly/visibly sigh when you call on them to assist you. I am so very thankful for my caregiver, my husband of 25 years. Truth be told, there were times I felt guilty receiving so many goodies, and he had none. They’d enjoy a token of friendship as much as your sick friend during treatment.
What’s the best thing people can do for you during cancer?
It’s simple, treat them like a person; not an illness.
If they crack an inappropriate joke about cancer, so be it. Don’t scold for trying to make light of their current situation, instead embrace your friend’s humor and laugh. Just laugh with them. Cancer is ugly, emotional, and raw. Humor, love, and support are crucial for thriving in life.
Not only are we suffering. Our caregivers suffer too. They must continue working. Their time off is spent shuffling their loved one between doctors appointments and the pharmacy. Every moment is filled with fear and angst. Are we getting sick? Did we fall, again? How’s that bruise? Our fever spiked? Puking again? Can’t get off the floor… imagine that, the caregiver’s perspective.
What was one memory that really moved you?
One incident sticks out as I was in a big box store shopping for sports bras with my then five-year-old, he’d known mommy’s boobs were sick with cancer and they had been cut off. He also knew I was getting new boobs. In the store sorting sports bras and he asked me if I was picking out my new boobs. So sweet.
What’s a good coping tip for other cancer patients?
Try to keep in mind that every step of cancer is scary. It really helps to talk to others, find a group, find someone to talk and relate to. It’s essential to good healing. I have many friends that kept my spirits afloat for me while I was down. I’ll forever be grateful for all the support and love I felt.
When you were diagnosed? What was your treatment and for how long?
I felt a lump on my left breast and I already knew it was breast cancer (I just didn’t know if I was terminal). The lump discover occurred 11/13/15. I Immediately scheduled a mammogram. I had no medical insurance. Lack of insurance didn’t stop me from taking care of myself. It shouldn’t stop you. Unfortunately, we all know of someone who suffered in pain from cancer because they didn’t have medical coverage. The hospitals will help!
My family and I received and confirmed what I already knew in my heart, the news; I had breast cancer. Not just one tumor. Not just one cancer. I had six tumors, I believe; and two cancers. Stage One – Invasive Lobular Carcinoma and Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. Thus #badboob was born. I swear I must have felt that lump the moment it began to take momentum and grow. How dare my boob, my #badboob get two cancers. That bitch was grounded. For life.
There are tons of organizations willing to help you! Have a friend do the research for you, after all, they’ve been wanting to feel useful. Ask them. They will help and research like a mofo for you and create lists. You won’t be able to really focus to see what you’re looking at or have the mental capacity to care. But you will smile and thank him/her for all the help. You’ll hug. You’ll heal.
Chemo began in April 2016. I had six rounds of the TC cocktail (Taxol/Taxotere and Cytoxan) every 21 days. My last chemo was May 20, 2015. I’m at my one year of not being in active treatment. Chemo was hell. Pure hell. Neulasta is Satan’s juice and should be banned. We need a cure for cancer. July 18th 2016, I went in for surgeries 4, 5, & 6. Completing breast reconstruction via expander method; another tortuous aspect of treatment and therapy. The chemo port and lady bits came out that day as well. I was plagued with sickness after sickness into the fall, finally getting better after the new year began.
What was the most painful moment of your cancer journey?
The most painful part of my journey was knowing my breasts were going to be amputated because of breast cancer. I had the most difficult time coming to terms with this, and I’m still traumatized today.
I know breast removal was necessary if I wanted to live, but damn; you know? From lump discovery to bilateral mastectomy only a month had transpired, this was all too new for me. It was moving too fast. I didn’t want to lose my breasts. I couldn’t stop hyperventilating. I was acting out, I was scared. I was terrified.
First step to complete recovery: GET RID OF THE TOXIC TRASH IN YOUR LIFE. Whether it be habit or people. Dump them and run. Once I kicked that toxic shit; my mental state is so much better. I’m sure of myself. Confident in my decisions. NO longer questioning my moves or actions. Be yourself, fuck the rest. And why are you taking offense to my story anyway? Really? Ya know? Life is an obstacle….live and let live.
What was the most joyful moment of your cancer journey?
Honestly, every day is better than the day before! My energy, determination, and drive to spread awareness while help others have grown tremendously.
I’m ready to get up in the mornings. And actually get out of bed. I don’t reach for the pains meds anymore (that could be a whole other feature). It’s kinda taking over on it’s own. I’m really excited to see where I will be a year from now.
I’ve jumped right into my local cancer organizations, taking the reins and doing what I do best…..me. I never really knew I could feel good after cancer. I’ve met so many amazing souls in my journey and my connections get stronger and deeper daily. It’s truly a beautiful feeling, to be confident, grounded, and self-assured; traits I’d never possessed prior to breast cancer. Blogging has been a tremendously vehicle in finding those newly diagnosed and just as lost as I was upon the initial diagnosis.
What are you up to these days?
These days I have been so busy!! I feel grounded, confident, and productive again! Last October I filled out an application to model for a breast cancer survivor show at the local mall here in Raleigh. I didn’t think I’d be picked, but felt compelled to submit. Turns out, that was one of the best moves I’ve made, EVER! The show was postponed because hurricane Matthew, but that didn’t prevent me from becoming involved with Making Strides Against Breast Cancer of Raleigh, establishing myself as their Publicity & Social Media chair.
To add to my resume, I’ve picked up Relay for Life of Raleigh, Garner, Franklin Co, & Smithfield, NC. recently I picked up the American Cancer Society of Greater Raleigh too; handling their publicity and social media respectively. Having been a social media specialist for the past five years, I was in the perfect position to lend my expertise to the American Cancer Society and extend my support for those who may need it. And just yesterday, I spoke to the student council at my son’s elementary school about Relay For Life, we are planning a school-wide initiative!
I’m thrilled to represent my local American Cancer Society, having positioned myself as publicity & social media chair/ volunteer for seven local community Making Strides Against Breast Cancer and Relay For Life in North Carolina in less than six months! And to think, this time last year; I was in active treatment.
I have such a joy for life now, it’s absofuckinlutely amazing! I’m loving life! I have a mission. I’m thrilled with where I am, who I am, where I came from and where I’m going!
To read more about Tara and her story, visit her blog, BadBoob.
Are you interested in sharing your cancer story? Let’s get started! lumpycards.com/share-your-cancer-story