Today, i attended the Susan G. Komen Race for the first time. Of course, i couldn’t just walk in it like everyone else. Nope … i had to go big or go home, so i ended up giving a speech, participating in a live interview with Channel 3 News, and then running for half of the 5K walk. Afterwards, my awesome roommate treated me and her girlfriend to mimosas and protein-filled breakfasts at The Daily Dose, where i ran into an old boss i haven’t seen in at least six years. He proceeded to straight up tell me that whenever i was ready to go back to teaching at his school, to let him know. After brunch, i went to The Polish Room to treat my tired, somewhat blistering feet to a pedicure, and the owner handed me a $300 gift certificate on my way out the door.
Yup – today was a splendid day.
One speech down, one to go ….
LINK TO THE CHANNEL 3 NEWS VIDEO
ROUGH TRANSCRIPT OF MY SPEECH
(I was told not to bring the speech or notecards up with me but instead to have a conversation with the audience … so i’m sure i deviated from this draft at least a couple of times.)
I was the little girl who, at the age of 3, already drove my mother crazy because i insisted on picking out my own outfits – every day.
I was the adolescent who left home at 17 to go to college in a state 989 miles away.
I was the college graduate who moved clear across the country to teach in Arizona, a state where i had no family or friends.
I was the teacher whom Teach for America assigned to take on the most difficult job position open that year: a self-contained classroom for middle-school students with emotional and behavioral disorders.
I was the womyn who made national headlines when I was fired from Imagine Schools for refusing to remove bumper stickers on my car.
I am self-confident. I am unbreakable. Always have been, always will be.
And then i got cancer.
I approached my diagnosis the same way i approach everything else in life – head on. Confidently. With strength.
The day I received confirmation that I really did have breast cancer, I drove right from my doctor’s office to ASU Gammage Theatre, where I watched the Book of Mormon Broadway musical with a friend, never giving the slightest indication that I had just received devastating news that would impact the rest of my life.
When I had my double mastectomy, I refused to let anyone know which hospital I was at, and I didn’t even tell my parents about the procedure until I was about to be released.
I drove myself to most of my medical appointments – as many as six in a week.
I stayed on top of all the paperwork constantly being requested by two insurance companies, three hospitals, eight medical offices, and my employer.
I kept a smile on my face when in my classroom, teaching my students.
I started a blog, to keep my family and friends across the country updated.
I educated myself on every step of my cancer treatment – mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, hormone therapy, and reconstruction.
I did all the things that i assumed any competent, strong, and confident adult would do. Plus, I was getting all the “normal” types of help.
- United Healthcare enrolled me in a resource program for cancer patients.
- The Cancer Support Community of Arizona provided me with free Zumba, free make-up tutorials for when I would lose my hair, and free cooking classes to help address my affected appetite and new nutritional needs.
- My dad flew all the way across the country just to spend a week with me during one of my chemotherapy sessions.
- My coworkers kept my classroom disinfected, subbed for me when i was too sick to teach, and wore pink paraphernalia every Monday in solidarity.
- Cancer survivors crawled out of the woodwork to validate and encourage me at random times, on random days – my favorite instance being 8-year-old Mia Bryant, a brain cancer survivor who came up to me at a restaurant one day to bond with me over finishing chemotherapy and getting our hair to grow back.
- And my friends … geezus, I could spend this entire day talking about the H.E.A.L. fundraising event they spent three months prepping for, and the cards they sent me weekly, and the outings they took me on when I was weak, and the presents … so many presents.
That’s fine, universe – give me cancer. Not only will I annihilate it, but I will be a stronger and better person afterwards. Stronger Tarah. Count me in.
… but even when i was doing everything i thought i was supposed to do, there were things that still weren’t working out. So the real truth is this: Cancer chipped away at my strength and confidence ANYWAY. It happened little by little, in such small doses that I didn’t even notice at first.
- One of my chemotherapy sessions got delayed, after my white blood cell count dipped too low. CHIP
- I lost my hair, my skin turned yellow, and my muscle mass deteriorated from being too weak to keep up any sort of gym regimen. CHIP CHIP CHIP
- My girlfriend – the one who got me to change my mind and agree to traditional cancer treatment in the first place, the one who promised to stay with me every step of the way, changed her mind two months in. CHIP
- My incisions from my mastectomy surgery split open – twice. CHIP CHIP
- Radiation caused so much skin damage that it led to staph infection and unforeseen medical complications. CHIP CHIP
- My health insurance decided that one of my hospitalizations wasn’t “medically necessary,” so they sent me a $21,000 bill. CHIP
- Three surgeries in a row didn’t work, and i lost the right implant completely. CHIP CHIP CHIP. CHIP
And then one thing happened that officially broke me: I got fired.
The staph infection and the multiple hospitalizations kept me out of work even after i ran out of sick days. My employer had the option of letting me stay employed on a “Leave Without Pay” status until i was medically cleared to return to work.
Instead, they decided to let me go.
Suddenly, I felt my strength fall in puddles beneath my feet.
Gone was the job I had been at for five years, a place where I had won an award for my teaching and where I had the highest scores from state evaluators for three years in a row.
Gone was my income.
Gone was the health insurance that was paying for all my cancer treatment.
Gone was my retirement plan.
Gone was my confidence.
Gone was my fighting.
Gone was my strength.
It’s easy to believe in your own strength when most things are going your way… but when everything around you crumbles, you start to see the depth of your own strength … and I am not as strong as I thought I was.
Luckily, a whole city decided to rise up together and keep fighting *for* me.
It started with advice from a lawyer: “The quickest way to get your job back is to shame them.”
It continued with validation from an AZ Republic reporter, Craig Harris. My interview with him was a game-changer – privately and publicly. Up until now, I had the support all around me; so many of my coworkers, friends, and family knew that how I was being treated was cruel and callous. So I had the support; I just didn’t have any POWER.
Craig handed me that power.
He shared my story. The videos and articles started trending. Thousands of people all across the country were watching, responding, offering to help, and contacting the governor’s office to request intervention. A GoFundMe account was established; it raised over $6,000 in a matter of days. And only two days later, I found myself lying in a hospital bed talking to a representative from the governor’s office, and i was listening to him tell me words i almost wouldn’t let myself believe.
“You have been completely reinstated to your position, retroactive to August 8. When you are ready to come back to work, please let me know, and i will make the appropriate arrangements. In the meantime, please only worry about getting healthy.”
It really did take a whole village to raise up this one child. Systems are just systems, and sometimes they don’t work out for us … and that’s why it is so crucial for us as people to pay attention, get involved, use more of our time to help others, and stand up to fight injustice. After all, not everyone gets rescued like i did … but what if they COULD?