Breast cancer survivor finds her stride

April 06, 2018
Tanya Waring-Hearn walks regularly to keep her energy levels up as she prepares for the 41st Cooper River Bridge Run. Photo by Dawn Brazell
Tanya Waring-Hearn walks regularly to keep her energy levels up as she prepares for the 41st Cooper River Bridge Run. Photo by Dawn Brazell

This Saturday Tanya Waring-Hearn will join thousands of others for the 41st Cooper River Bridge Run. It will be the first time she’s done it. Ironically, it took a diagnosis of cancer to get her here.

It’s in Waring-Hearn’s nature to help others. As a communications specialist with public safety at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), it’s her job to put the needs and safety of patients, faculty and staff first. But in April of 2016 at the age of 39, Waring-Hearn discovered a lump in her breast during one of her routine self-exams. A diagnosis of stage 1 breast cancer made her realize that it was time to start letting other people take care of her.

“I didn’t think anything of it, I wasn’t afraid, just concerned. My doctor told me we were going to do a diagnostic mammogram. “My reaction, ‘A mammogram? I’m not even 40. Why should I have a mammogram?”

When her doctor at the MUSC Hollings Cancer Center (HCC) explained to her the next day that she had cancer, she took it in stride.

“I received the phone call that no young lady wanted to hear, that it was breast cancer. I never shed a tear. I just turned it over to God and said ‘father give me the strength to get through this battle.’”

She was ready to fight it.

“I thought to myself, cancer? You know sometimes people hear the word cancer and think death. I didn’t think anything about death. I thought, ‘OK, I have cancer. How am I going to tell my family?’”

Eager to put her diagnosis behind her, Waring-Hearn met with a team of doctors at HCC to discuss her next steps. Within a few weeks she was scheduled for a lumpectomy, hoping that would be the end of it. But post-surgery, her medical oncologist Sara Giordano, M.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at MUSC explained she wasn’t done fighting just yet.

Following surgery, Waring-Hearn was recovering well. She remembers thinking, “OK, I can do this.” Then on June 1, 2016, came her first session of chemotherapy, with her husband and brother by her side.  It just happened to fall on the day of her son’s high school graduation. After her first treatment, Waring-Hearn was sure chemotherapy wasn’t going to be as bad as everyone had said since everyone reacts differently. She felt fine despite the warnings of hot flashes, hair loss, fatigue and memory loss.

“The next day, it was totally different. For two weeks, I was sick. But I made up my mind to fight this. I kept telling myself it was temporary, and this is what I had to do to live a long life on this earth.”

Waring-Hearn made a trip to the barber and went with a shorter haircut to minimize the shock of when she would start losing her hair. “I didn’t go outside as much. I’m the kind of person that loves helping others. I love taking care of other people, but at this point, I was like, ‘It’s time for me to take a step back and let other people take care of me.’ It was hard, because I’m always going, going, going.”

Treatment required Waring-Hearn to take a leave of absence from work and her side business as a photographer. “Anybody that knows me, knows that photography is my passion. It hurt me to cancel those upcoming sessions and wedding events, but at the time my main focus was my health.”

After six months of chemotherapy, Waring-Hearn felt well enough to return to her job at public safety before beginning radiation. While the radiation wasn’t as bad as the chemotherapy, Waring-Hearn experienced burning of her skin and extreme exhaustion. She was praying that she would be finished before Christmas and got good news when she finished her final dose December 23. “Merry Christmas to me,” she said, grinning broadly.

What Waring-Hearn didn’t realize was how long recovery can take even after treatment ends. In October of 2017, she found that she still had very little energy. After hearing about HCC’s Survivors’ Fit Club, she enrolled in the fitness and wellness program for breast cancer patients offered at the MUSC Wellness Center. The 10-week program helps cancers survivors to improve strength and self-esteem while lowering anxiety and fatigue.

“I wanted to get my energy back. Even now, there are times l am still tired. The personal trainers, the activities that were involved, and the people who came to speak with us were awesome. The Survivors’ Fit Club pushed me to exercise more,” she said.

Now, almost two years to the date of her diagnosis, she’s ready for her first Cooper River Bridge Run. The avid walker is confident in her ability to overcome yet another challenge after years of telling herself she was going to participate in the event.

“My first year I was diagnosed with cancer, I did the Susan G. Komen walk as well. I was like, ‘You know, if I can do this, I can do the bridge run.’ At the time, I’m thinking in my mind, ‘I’m going to be fit to run the bridge. I’m a survivor, and to be able to make it over that finish line, that’s awesome.’”

Waring-Hearn said the club has helped her reach this milestone and that she’s enjoying a new sense of energy and well-being. She knows she’s fortunate. As she walks to celebrate her recovery, she also will be carrying the memories of four young friends she has lost to breast cancer in the past year all under the age of 40. This year she’ll be walking, and that’s just fine, she said. While it’s important to push and be active, it has to be done slowly.

“My best advice is to be kind and listen to your body. Take it slow. You’re still recovering.” Waring-Hearn wants everyone going through a similar struggle to stay encouraged and "prayed up."

“Remember it’s just temporary.”