Stronger on the other side

Tina MacNamara’s story is one filled with heartbreak, hope, uncertainty, faith, discouragement, triumph and so much more.
In August of 2014, Tina received shocking news that no one wants to hear. She was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, a breast cancer so rare, it only accounts for 1 to 3 percent of all breast cancers diagnosed in the United States.
Tina and her husband, Patrick, are parents to two children: Madeline, who is 16, and Creed, who is 10. A lifelong resident of Faulkner County, Tina is also fortunate to have the support of her parents, three sisters and Patrick’s parents. How to share the news of her diagnosis with her loved ones proved difficult.
“Within minutes of my diagnosis, Patrick called our pastor, Rod Loy, told him the news and asked if we could meet with him the next day. As soon as we sat down in his office, I asked, ‘How do I do this? How do I tell my parents, my sisters, my children? How are the words, I have cancer, supposed to come out of my mouth?’
“I wanted to handle everything, and everyone, in a way that would make this devastating diagnosis more palatable, more bearable, for those I loved. Over the next several hours our pastor prayed for us, encouraged us and, at my request, strategized with us on how to proceed. I quickly realized there was no way to make this easier. The next few days were filled with pain, anguish, questions and lots of tears. I had conversations I never imagined I would have; words tumbled out of my mouth I never thought I would have to speak. The heartbreak and worry I saw in the eyes of the people I love most in this world caused me immeasurable sadness. I was incensed that this deplorable disease took up residence in my body and caused my loved ones such grief.
“Out of everything I went through, the telling of the diagnosis and the subsequent ache it caused in the hearts of my people, was one of the hardest aspects of the entire journey. Equally as painful, was worrying about how this was going to affect my children and coping with the heartache of being away from them for days at a time during my treatment,” Tina said.
After seeking a second opinion at M.D. Anderson in Houston, Texas, Tina’s diagnosis proved more ominous than originally thought. Further testing revealed that the cancer was not fueled by any of the three hormones that are most commonly associated with the growth of breast cancer cells. About 90 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer are estrogen, progesterone or HER-2 NU positive. There are many therapies available that specifically target one or more of these hormones and shut them down so the cancer cannot continue to grow. Those hormones were not present in Tina’s case, classifying her as Triple Negative. This rare type of breast cancer only affects 10 percent of women diagnosed with this disease. Triple Negative breast cancer is also harder to treat.
Tina’s official diagnosis was Stage 3C, Triple Negative, inflammatory breast cancer. A type of cancer so rare, it affects less than one percent of all women diagnosed with breast cancer. MD Anderson is the only cancer hospital in the world that has a clinic solely dedicated to the treatment of inflammatory breast cancer.
“At the time of my first visit, the hospital was enrolling patients into a promising phase II clinical trial designed specifically for inflammatory breast cancer patients. Most women in the study were hormone positive, but they felt I would be a good candidate for the trial despite my Triple Negative status,” Tina said.
After mountains of paperwork and approval from the insurance company, Tina was approved to participate in the clinical trial and became the 29th human to receive this promising, but experimental, regimen of chemotherapy.
These drugs were only available at MD Anderson, and Tina was faced with leaving her children at home for three days while she and Patrick made the 18-hour round trip to Houston. Tina and Patrick made a total of 21 trips to Houston in only eight months. Although Patrick has a flexible work schedule, the effects of Tina’s illness and the weekly drive to Houston, combined with taking care of the kids and his other responsibilities, kept him in constant motion.
“Not one time since the day of my diagnosis have I heard him utter even one complaint. He was dad and mom to the kids, sole provider and manager of the household, chief medical researcher and primary caretaker of me. Just driving to Houston and taking care of me every week would have been enough to exhaust any ordinary man. But as Patrick proved then, and continues to demonstrate to this day, he is no ordinary man,” Tina said.
“Without a doubt, the most traumatic aspect of the entire journey was not the diagnosis, the grim prognosis or the subsequent sickness and pain during treatment. It was being away from my children for three days every week that broke me. My tears would start before we were out of the driveway and only stopped when I had finally cried myself into a deep sleep. They would Facetime us each night before they went to bed, and many nights I would only allow them to see Patrick on the screen because I didn’t want them to see me crying. I was afraid they would think I was in immense pain, and I didn’t want them to worry. Actually, I don’t remember ever crying as a result of physical pain during that time. All of my tears stemmed from a broken heart caused by their absence. No matter the pain, I truly believed I could only rest and heal if I was near them. They didn’t have to be physically in the room, but just knowing they were in the house, or would soon be home from school or activities, calmed me. Anyone who spent time with me during treatment could attest to this: missing my kids was harder on my heart than taking the chemo was on my body.”
After completing chemotherapy, Tina chose to complete the next phase of her treatment in Little Rock, undergoing a double mastectomy at Baptist Medical Center by Dr. James Hagans. Radiation treatments would follow, and Tina confidently chose Dr. Bryan Imamura, the radiation oncologist at CARTI in Conway to oversee those treatments.
“We are incredibly fortunate to have such state-of-the-art facilities and equipment, and the brilliant team of doctors and radiation technologists that work at CARTI right here in our hometown. I am convinced that I could not have received better medical care for this phase of my treatment anywhere else. After 33 radiation treatments, I felt like everyone there was my new best friends. They made those tough days as comfortable as possible, and I can’t tell you how absolutely amazing it was to drive less than 10 minutes to my appointments,” she said.
At the beginning of her treatment at MD Anderson, the hope was that at least 50 percent of the cancer would be gone and the rest could be removed with surgery. Immediately following the surgery but before radiation treatments began, Tina received the results of her pathology report — zero cancer cells.
“Not one cancer cell was found in the removed tissue or nodes. He explained this was called a complete chemotherapy response and added that with a diagnosis of stage 3C, Triple Negative, Inflammatory breast cancer, I was a walking miracle. To God be the Glory,” Tina said.
In Tina’s blog that chronicles her battle, she says, “I’m not wasting this pain. This traumatic season in our lives doesn’t have to destroy, it can be used as an opportunity to make us stronger. The way I respond to this can either burden or benefit my children; I want it to be the latter. If Maddie and Creed grow up to be more resilient when life becomes complicated, show tenderness and compassion toward others enduring a difficult season, and trust God to bring peace when unexpected circumstances threaten to ravish their lives, then this battle was worth it to me.”
As evident in their own words, Madeline and Creed are clearly better because of the experience.
“After watching my mom go through treatment, I think she is truly the strongest woman I have ever met. Our family became even closer as a result of what we went through, and I have a deeper understanding of what faith in God really means. Mom taught me that having faith in God does not guarantee that I will have an easy life; it means that when tough times come, God will bring peace to my heart and give me strength to go through it, even if the outcome isn’t what I wanted it to be,” Madeline said.
Madeline’s brother, Creed, said, “My dad took very good care of my mom when she was sick, but she’s not sick anymore. She gets to come to my school and eat lunch with me now like she used to do before she got sick. Also, if you didn’t know it, that cancer medicine makes you slick bald, but don’t worry about it. My mom’s hair grew right back and when she doesn’t make it straight, it’s still curly just like mine.”
Tina is celebrating Mother’s Day this year cancer-free for one year and is not only surviving, she is thriving. Her entire journey is chronicled in her blog: teamtina.me.