To say Tammy Coleman has a complicated medical history is something of an understatement.
She and her son, Rodney Brown, had moved to California from their Knoxville hometown, but the tiny woman with a gigantic smile was soon stricken with a bewildering series of health problems. Two heart attacks, a stroke, congestive heart failure and complications related to high blood pressure kept Coleman in and out of the hospital for months at a time. That came from her father’s side of the family, she says. Breast and ovarian cancer were on her mother’s side, and not long after the two moved back to be closer to home and family support, she discovered she had breast cancer as well.
Genetic testing revealed mutations that indicated significant likelihood she would develop ovarian cancer too, so in one day Coleman went in for a double mastectomy and complete hysterectomy in hopes of beating the odds.
“I was in surgery nine to 10 hours,” Coleman says. The night before, as the two faced the daunting procedure, she promised Rodney she was going to pull through.
“I said, ‘Tomorrow we’re going to have this conversation again. I’m gonna wake up. I’m gonna be okay,’” she says.
After surgery came chemotherapy, through which she physically broke down. Her family, whose support she moved back for prior to her breast cancer diagnosis, found themselves overwhelmed by her illness and kept a distance—except for Rodney, who had been by his mom’s side since age 15 and the start of her medical problems. He’s now 21.
“He’s been here since it all began,” she says.
The two used to live across the street from the Provision Center for Proton Therapy. Coleman—a photographer—taking wedding clients for pictures by the waterfall behind the Knoxville Comprehensive Breast Center and both of them wondering what might be going into the hole across the street. Rodney watched with interest as plans for the Provision Center for Proton Therapy unfolded. He researched the technology and found it fascinating—not realizing how personally it would one day affect him.
“I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this is coming to Knoxville,’” he says.
As it turned out, the move back to Tennessee from San Jose was fortuitous as the proton therapy centers in California were in a different part of the state. After being diagnosed with cancer, Coleman’s doctors recommended proton therapy rather than conventional radiation because of her heart condition and other health issues. Proton therapy reduces radiation exposure to crucial organs near the breasts—particularly the heart and lungs.
But Coleman wasn’t so sure.
“When I first walked into Provision I was a nervous wreck,” she says. “I was so scared. I knew protons are still radiation. I thought, ‘That looks like the weirdest machine I’ve seen in my entire life, and you want me to lay on that table?’”
Her fears were unfounded, however, and she and Rodney say they discovered a second home at Provision.
“When you’re sitting in a regular medical facility, nobody talks to anybody,” Coleman says. “At Provision, everybody’s so friendly. All the guys, they became my brothers and dads and cousins. I feel like I gained a whole new family by being here.”
The staff also sensed her hesitancy, she says, and were quick to reassure her.
“They knew to come and say, ‘Miss Tammy, it’s okay. This is what we’re going to do,’” she says. “You can ask just about anybody anything. Everything is explained. They make sure you understand and make sure you’re comfortable.”
Since her cancer diagnosis, Coleman has become a fierce advocate for breast cancer awareness, participating in local events and signing up for cancer runs and spreading the word on a Facebook page she has set up for that purpose. She’s also become an advocate for Provision. She gives out bumper stickers all over town and has set up presentations on proton therapy with local groups as part of her choice to be a Proton Ambassador.
“This is my passion now,” she says.
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