As a nursing mom who also worked as a lactation consultant, I thought my breast lump was a plugged milk duct.

As he told Erica Rimlinger

Breastfeeding was easy for my three children and I, and I breastfed my children as long as possible. Friends joked, “Those babies are old enough to order soda,” but I didn’t care. I’m an insurance agent by profession and a health advocate by passion. Taught exercise classes for pregnant women and provided breastfeeding education for women in the WIC program. I am a wellness cheerleader promoting the benefits of breastfeeding to improve the health of mothers and babies. On the path of health, my lane is prevention.

When I got a hard lump while I was nursing my third child, I thought I had a plugged milk duct. In my years of breastfeeding and working with breastfeeding women, I had seen plugged milk ducts, but never had one before. The normal remedies of warm compresses and massages had no effect, so mystified, I went to the doctor.

I recently moved from Rochester, New York to Houston, Texas to get my degree in Kinesiology with a focus on Health Coaching at Texas Woman’s University (TWU). He lived near the Texas Medical Center, a block from the TWU campus. Without a private health care provider (HCP), I went to the TWU Office of Student Health, which was run by the University of Texas. To my surprise, the HCP told me that I needed a mammogram. Then, after seeing the mammogram, he told me to make an appointment with an oncologist.

“Why would I see an oncologist for a lactation problem?” I asked. “Tell me directly. What’s going on?” I tried to get the HCP to look me in the eye. She avoided my gaze and my question, saying, “If someone says you don’t need a mastectomy, she’s lying to you.”

She was 43 years old and a healthy mother. She exercised six days a week. I never took or needed to take medication, not even an aspirin. Now the word “oncologist” hung in the air like a ghost. My father and his two brothers had died of pancreatic cancer. He knew what an oncologist did.

Tamiko Byrd with her children, 2022. (Photo/Cocoa Rae David)

Tamiko Byrd with her childrenTamiko Byrd with her children, 2022. (Photo/Cocoa Rae David)

Two weeks later, I sat at a conference roundtable at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center with a team of five medical professionals. Got my straight answer. I underwent a full day of tests and learned I had stage 4 breast cancer. My left breast was riddled with tumors that had metastasized to my shoulder blade.

I remembered what my sister, a nurse practitioner, said when our father was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer: “There is no stage 5.” That day, my sister was on a business trip in Costa Rica when I called her and told her. She fainted.

I felt weak too, but I had a fight to win. Within a week, my mom and sister arrived in Houston to support my treatment, which began almost immediately with chemotherapy.

Now I felt as sick as my diagnosis implied. I thought I knew what fatigue was, but I didn’t. I thought I knew how sick I could be and survive, but I didn’t. I lost my hair, and my eyebrows and eyelashes: the essence of my femininity. The cancer center had a beauty salon where they shaved me, so I didn’t have to watch my hair fall out piece by piece. I silently prayed, “It’s just you and me, God! I’m scared. I don’t want to die, God!”

He had been working 30 hours a week while attending school. My health coverage would have kicked in after 90 days, but I was diagnosed with cancer the week before coverage started, so coverage was denied. Fortunately, I worked in insurance for years and knew I could appeal. While I was working, going to school, raising my children, and fighting for my life with every cell in my body, I also went to battle with the health insurance company, appealing their decision. I was extremely and unusually fortunate that the hospital allowed me to continue treatment during my appeal. After fighting for months, he would finally win on appeal. In the meantime, I applied for Medicaid and received it.

I know that if I had no insurance experience, I never would have been able to navigate the complex and time-consuming appeals process. She could barely handle it in the condition she was in.

I lost feeling in my fingers and toes. My joints ached. My nails and teeth loosened. But that was not the worst. After my fifth round of chemotherapy, I lost control of my bowels at work. “This can’t be happening,” I sobbed, frantically rushing to clean up my bathroom mess with thin brown paper towels between bouts of vomiting. I left work that day and never came back.

As difficult as this was, I had faith that God was with me. I wrote about my journey on Facebook to rally support and let my friends and family know that we were struggling. From as far away as Africa, Rochester, and Costa Rica, my community came together with prayer circles, groceries, food, wigs, childcare help, and more. Before my mastectomy, I threw a farewell party for my left breast. It was an intimate moment where I sang, I cried, I prayed and I cried for my chest. In Rochester, I ran a free community exercise program called Soul Fitness 10 hours a week. Now, my former students were teaching me that when you give something to the community, the community gives it back to you.

One month after my mastectomy, my GPA dropped to 2.99 and I was automatically expelled from school. For months, my spirit had been buoyed by the love of my community and family. But I had also been buoyed by the intellectual stimulation of school, learning and keeping my mind active, and pursuing my dream of becoming a certified health coach.

I got angry. I had finally won my appeal against the insurance company, and now cancer was coming to take away my education. “You can’t have my mind too,” I told the cancer, and filed an appeal with the school.

The dean and the administration of the graduate studies program could not understand why I wanted to stay. “Why not take some time to focus on getting your health back?” they asked. But I didn’t know if I would ever get my health back and I wanted to spend what time I had left chasing my dream.

I understood why people quit, but I wasn’t going to. I would never give up.

The school relented and told me, “Okay, Mrs. Byrd. We have never seen anyone fight so hard.” They allowed me to retake my semester. But I was warned: financial aid would not cover it, and if it failed, I was out forever. I assured them that I had fought so many battles that I could handle one more.

A week later, I went to the hospital for my scheduled full body scan.

The examination found no evidence of disease.

Fighting every step of the way, she had beaten stage 4 breast cancer.

I went back to school. I received an A+ in my retake classes. I graduated with an Executive MBA and a Masters in Kinesiology, the only student in my class to graduate with two degrees.

Now when people ask me how I did it, I tell them that all the lessons I learned in life before I was diagnosed with cancer were preparing me for a war I never thought I would have to participate in. The most important lesson was this: Keep fighting. Even when it looks like you won’t win, especially when it looks like you won’t win, fight anyway.

This resource is created with the support of Merck & Sanofi.

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