Fight of her life

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One of terrific people you'll get to meet tomorrow morning at the Free to Breathe run and walk at NC State's Centennial Campus is Wake County Lead Speech-Language Pathologist Tomma Hargraves.

On Monday Tomma will celebrate her third year anniversary as a lung cancer survivor. She was diagnosed with stage 3/B non-small cell lung cancer on November 9, 2006, after finding a hard pea-sized node in her left neck/shoulder region. The diagnosis was shocking as Tomma had a very healthy life style. There were no warning signals - no cough, loss of weight, pain. She had a tumor in the right lung, lymph node involvement but the only lymph node outside of my chest was the one she found. 

Tomma participated in a very aggressive clinical trial at UNC. It was a 3 stage treatment with high dose of chemo, lower dose of chemo, radiation 12% higher than normal treatments, and targeted therapies including Avastin and Tarceva. She had all the typical side effects... hair loss, weight loss, fatigue. The radiation had a cumulative effect and she ended up on a morphine patch for about a month. As Tomma described it: “That was the only time I couldn't get into the office and work because I seemed to stare into space a lot! “ 

In May of 2007, Tomma’s doctors told her that what had been there was essentially gone. Here is more of Tomma's courageous story:

1. My heroes: No doubt my oncology nurses for one... they were always there for me, day or night when I had questions or worries; my doctors at UNC who encouraged me to go for this aggressive treatment; certainly my husband who hated all things medical and really grew through this experience and my son who mentored me throughout as both a son and doctor. 
2. What kept me going? My job - it gave me a reason to get up every morning (when I could); the people I work with (SLPs are the best, you know!); my faith (I never prayed for healing but simply the strength to endure whatever came my way); and my sense of humor (can't ever let that go!). 
3. Courage: My husband and pastor always liked to say I was stubborn... but since I've gone thru this experience, I told them they couldn't complain of my "stubbornness" I preferred to call it determination or perserverance? I think everyone possesses courage - it's just what you choose to do with that courage. I had a great example in my mother who had lupus and was ill most of my life... she was one of the toughest women I've ever know. 
4. Did I ever get real discouraged? Yes, I really did... at the end of the intensive period of chemo and radiation, I had about a month where I got extremely dehydrated and couldn't eat - I was very, very fatigued as well. Those few weeks were the hardest but my team of docs, nurses, family and friends were so encouraging, the moments would pass. 
5. Advice to others: I think the biggest thing I would encourage folks to do is to get more than one opinion... check out all your options. When we hear the big C word, we just want to get rid of it and often jump right into treatment. Often a person will qualify for a clinical trial which is cutting edge treatment for many types of cancer... but if you start one course of treatment that may disqualify you for a clinical trial. We are blessed to have so many wonderful teaching hospitals here in the Triangle. Find a support group... find a mentor. And always keep a sense of humor - it can take you far! 
6. Saturday's event: Free to Breathe (R) 2009 is the 5K walk/run for Lung Cancer Awareness and fundraising. The North Carolina Lung Cancer Partnership is the organization with runs the event. We are holding this year's event at NC States Centennial Campus. Free to Breathe started in 2006 in Philadelphia. Raleigh was the second location to host a Free to Breathe event, and in 2009 there will be 5 events across NC and 23 nationally. The funds raised through these events go to research grants in lung cancer. 
Lung Cancer facts: Lung cancer is the most deadly of all cancers and yet the least funded.... lung cancer can happen to anyone.


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