Tammy Walker has been a registered nurse for 40 years, but she became the patient five years ago when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
The Smithton resident found a lump in her breast in May 2014 and brought it to her physician’s attention. After an abnormal mammogram and an abnormal ultrasound, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. A few months later, she underwent a mastectomy and major breast reconstruction. Over the course of two years, she had eight surgeries at Bothwell and at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
“You think, ‘is this happening?’ You never think it’ll happen to you,” she said of hearing her diagnosis. “As a nurse, I really didn’t know much about breast cancer so I had to educate myself. I did research on my own because I wanted to understand what was happening, the testing and how it affected me. It was very important to me to be educated. You have to wrap your head around it. Educating myself made a huge difference for knowing what to expect, but there were still a lot of unknowns.”
Walker said a cancer patient always has that thought in the back of their head reminding themselves to be careful and pay attention to their body. But she said hearing her treatment was complete was a “great relief. … It helps you move along.”
After her own breast cancer experience, Walker said she knew she wanted to be helpful to others affected by the disease. She, unfortunately, knows the harsh realities of breast cancer firsthand. While she is a survivor, her friend who was diagnosed shortly after Walker didn’t have the same outcome.
“Hers was a different type and she passed away. At least I was able to lead her with the initial steps and support her,” Walker said.
Breast cancer is continuing to affect Walker, as her sister, Sherry Landon, was diagnosed and is going through treatment. After seeing numerous results of breast cancer, she said it’s challenging.
“I’m a survivor, my friend passed, and my sister is a stage 4 thriver and will be in treatment for the rest of her life,” Walker said. “I had a different outcome. I support her, answer questions, and offer the same advice as well. I’m an oncology nurse, so to live that route that you’re OK and the next person might not be. I’ve experienced that with patients too.”
After years of working with newborns at Bothwell, Walker’s cancer experience prompted her to look into oncology nursing.
“I wanted to do something and make a difference,” she recalled. “... I felt a genuine desire to look at this. God placed it in my heart to look at that opportunity.”
She began job shadowing in the oncology department, then stepped in to help as needed. About a year later, a full-time position opened up and she has been working there for the last three and a half years. She said her own diagnosis has made her a more compassionate nurse.
“I can really appreciate that initial diagnosis, I know what it’s like to hear the word ‘cancer,’” she said of working with cancer patients. “I know the testing anxiety. I’ve been through familiar territory — losing a breast, what do I look like now, how do I feel good about myself? I don’t tell every patient I had breast cancer, but you know who needs to hear it.”
For those facing a new diagnosis or those going through breast cancer treatment, Walker had some simple advice: don’t try to do it alone.
“It’s hard to ask for help sometimes, but if you need help, take it, if it’s offered, take it. That’s what helped me,” she said. “I had support through my family, my church family, coworkers and my faith in God. That’s what made the difference for me.”