About a month after a routine mammogram, Tammy Harders felt a lump in her breast. Despite getting the all clear just a few weeks ago, the 44-year-old wife and mother of three remembers thinking, "This one is different."
An ultrasound, followed by a biopsy, revealed an invasive form of breast cancer. "It's the kind that moves really fast," they told her.
Harders, who homeschools her children in Trenton, Nebraska, says it took some time to process the news.
"I remember thinking about my husband and my kids," she says. "I said to myself 'I need to be around a little longer. My kids are so little.'"
Her deep Christian faith sustained her. "I had a peace about it because of the Lord," she says.
In October, Harders began six chemotherapy treatments in Kearney, Nebraska.
"The Lord was so good to us," she says of the good weather to get her back and forth to Kearney. She also felt blessed to feel well enough to homeschool during the treatment.
When her treatment ended in February, she needed reconstruction surgery, and fast. Because she needed future radiation treatments, it was recommended to complete breast reconstruction in the next six weeks. "The radiation's effects on the skin can make it difficult for reconstruction," she recalls.
Harders called and spoke to friends who had underwent breast reconstruction. "Everyone I spoke to who went to Nebraska Medicine was so happy with their experience and results," she says. "I called in February and they were booked until the end of June. I thought 'of course they're booked. Good doctors book up.'"
Everything changed after Sheila Graves, case management nurse at the Village Pointe Cancer Center, called her.
"Tammy is the sweetest, most grateful woman," says Graves. "She was basically turned loose on a mission to get a mastectomy and reconstruction with no direction within a very tight time frame."
"Sheila said to me 'Tammy, we are in North Platte! Maybe we can make it work,'" Harders recalls. "It was like 10,000 pounds was lifted off my shoulders in that moment. I felt rescued. I just kept thinking about my young kids and driving five hours to Omaha for this surgery. I had been told there were no plastic surgeons west of Kearney."
Thankfully, it did work out. A few days later, Harders had a zoom call with plastic surgeon Sean Figy, MD, to discuss the plan. Dr. Figy then reached out to Jacob Weisen, MD, a surgeon at Great Plains Health who agreed to assist him. They performed Harders' double mastectomy, followed by reconstruction on March 18.
"It's not common to perform the mastectomy and direct reconstruction together," says Graves. "The incentive to approach surgery this way was Tammy's need for radiation and then logistically her being so far away, it was deemed the best approach. Thankfully, she has done incredibly well with it all."
"They did a fantastic job," Harders says. "So many women had trouble or scarring. Dr. Figy is so gracious and does excellent work. This surgery has helped me not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally. I am so thankful to be whole."
"Tammy's willingness to trust someone over the phone to direct her care made me want to help her even more," says Graves. "It made me appreciate how far and how much time it takes for our patients to travel to access health care. I honestly believe they just accept what is offered realizing the limitations of living in a rural area, which is why outreach is so important. It allows us to bring medical care to them."
Harders is finished with a lot of the hard stuff. She completed 28 radiation treatments in June. The final step is a low-dose chemotherapy infusion once every three weeks until January 2022.
"I'm forever grateful to Dr. Figy, Dr. Wiesen, and Sheila," says Harders. "They have blessed my life so much. They are an answer to prayer. The Lord Jesus truly works all things together for good."
"When this is happening to you, when you're the one on the table, it's so comforting to be surrounded by people who care."