Despite daily struggles, breast cancer survivor embraces life
By Ann Craig-Cinnamon Photos by JJ Kaplan
There are lots of stories about breast cancer. Some are inspiring, some are a celebration of triumph, and unfortunately, some are sad in their outcome. But generally, they are hopeful because there has been so much advancement in both the treatment and the discussion of this terrible disease that once lived in the shadows.
Every once in a while, there’s a story that makes you stop and think and reconsider the way you live your own life. There is such a story tucked away on First Street in Zionsville at Claghorn Custom Flooring. As a customer, you would have no idea that Tara Claghorn is living in what she calls a “broken body.” By all appearances, she looks great: attractive, well-dressed, functioning highly at her job in her husband, Kent’s, business. You’d be shocked to learn that not only is she a breast cancer survivor, but that she has so many other conditions since being diagnosed and treated that she takes 17 different prescription medications every single day.
Tara is the mother of a 21-year-old Purdue pre-vet student and a 16-year-old who attends
Zionsville Community High School. She spent 25 years in the restaurant business as the owner/operator of a couple restaurants and had a goal of getting a doctorate in psychology and working in the Corrections field.
About seven years ago, she noticed a lump in her breast and went in for tests including mammograms and MRIs but was told she did not have cancer. She went three years with a missed diagnosis. “I knew I had cancer before I was diagnosed, but everybody said I didn’t. But I could feel it. It was a very hard tumor,” says Tara. “I was diagnosed in June 2009, and in March 2009, you could actually see my tumor from the outside, it was so big. But they kept telling me not to worry about it and come back in six months.”
There were other major signs that something was wrong too. Tara says she suffered from severe hives. In fact, she says they were so bad that her eyes would swell shut and her throat would close up, and she couldn’t breathe. After a few trips to the emergency room, her husband insisted that she find out what was going on. She transferred her medical files from a doctor in Anderson to a practice in Indianapolis and was diagnosed right away with Stage 2 breast cancer.
Here’s a shocking part of the story: in personally picking up her medical file, she found a lab report from 2008 that clearly indicated that she had cancer, but no one told her. “From that, I have learned that we are so in charge of our own healthcare. That no matter what you have done, you need to have a copy of it. They have hundreds of patients, and you only have you,” Tara warns.
So over the course of just 14 months, she had 12 surgeries including the removal of both breasts. She endured 16 weeks of strong chemotherapy and had her ovaries removed, sending her into instant menopause. All that and she was only 37 years old. That might be the end of the story for 90 percent of women who are treated for breast cancer. They go into remission and go on with their lives.
But Tara is in that 10 percent that suffers with post-cancer health problems. Four years later, she lives with a degenerative spine that is painful and does not allow her to lift anything more than five pounds. She has a tumor on her adrenal gland that the doctors are watching. She has COPD. The fibromyalgia that she had prior to her cancer diagnosis has returned with a vengeance, and she has memory loss and problems focusing because of all the chemo and pain medication she is on.
“I sound like a crazy person when you hear all the problems that I have,” she laughs. Her daily regimen includes inhalers, pain medication, thyroid medication, more medication for the cancer and something for the narcolepsy that all the medication causes. She can’t drive at night because she gets too sleepy. She has learned to arrange her life around the fatigue.
Though medical professionals won’t confirm it, Tara believes that all the chemotherapy has caused many of her current problems. “I don’t think people understand that surviving is sometimes as difficult as the sickness,” she asserts. These issues that Tara deals with every day are what she calls her “new normal.”
“Everything in our life gives us a new normal. Whether it’s a divorce, a death, a new child or whatever, we all have to learn a new normal. What matters is whether we embrace it, accept it, deal with it and enjoy it, or we let it drag us down. I think we have that choice. Life’s hard enough without making it harder on ourselves by not just saying ‘hey, it’s good. It’s going to rain today. I wish it wouldn’t, but it’s going to rain today.’”
A part of her new normal is having the energy to work only a few hours a day and requiring more time to do everything because of focus issues, but she says she wants to work. “I work not because I have to, but because it’s what keeps me sane. I don’t want to sit at home. You can sit at home and be sick, or you can be out in the world living your life, so you have to make that choice. It’s very easy to get involved in your sickness or your issues, run with that and be miserable, or you can enjoy your life. Something I’ve learned is that you can live life or live sick, and I didn’t want to live sick.”
Even when she found out just how sick she was, Tara’s instinct was to finish something she had started that was important to her. She went back to college to take the one course that had been standing in her way of getting her bachelor’s degree. “I played with my education for a long time. I had one class to take to get my degree, and I decided I was not going to die of cancer without my bachelor’s degree. So while I was going through treatment, I took that last class,” she says and adds that it wasn’t easy taking a class in statistics while suffering from chemo brain.
It is often said that going through a near-death experience is actually a life-affirming experience. Tara says her illness is one of the best things that ever happened to her because she appreciates everything so much more. “I’ve learned so many lessons from it about life, about people and about relationships. I’ve also learned how important it is for us to be in control of ourselves instead of just sitting back, letting things pass us by and letting people tell us what to do. I don’t think I trust less. I just trust differently,” says Tara.
She strongly advocates that women get tested, and if you think something is wrong, it probably is. Despite the great healthcare she says she now receives, Tara says she still asks questions and finds out what every lab test result means.
Despite her daily struggles, Tara Claghorn has an inspiring attitude. “My body is broken, but my spirit isn’t. I wake up every morning happy to be here. I think a lot of people don’t. They forget how important every day is, especially at my age. We think we’re going to live forever, and we’re never going to get old. Well I did get old very quickly. The things that used to matter, the things that used to cause drama, are not important anymore,” she says.
So the next time you’re having a bad day and wishing you could just curl up in bed and not face the world, think of Tara who gives it everything she’s got every day to get out of bed because she so wants to face the world. And she does it with a smile on her face and a glow from within.