If you listen to stories of cancer survivors and try to gauge your own risk by comparison, then Tammy Schroeder's story will alarm you.
She didn't fit a single risk category when a doctor told her she had Stage 3 colon cancer at age 35. If she had listened to the voice that said not to worry, that she had no family history of cancer; that she was much too young to worry about this - (15 years from the 50-year mark when doctors suggest a preventative colonoscopy) she probably wouldn't be here. Thankfully, she listened to the medical training in her, the nagging voice that said it was time to find out why she didn't feel well.
Today, she is nearly five years cancer free.
She doesn't call herself a victor because cancer never forfeits.
Instead, she is a wife and mother of three who believes she will be there for prom dresses and college applications, and an APRN at BryanLGH Health System's Crete Area Medical Center who never misses an opportunity to share the importance of cancer screenings.
Growing up in Newman Grove, Tammy planned to be a teacher. But her brother's bout with endocarditis exposed her to the medical world and changed her path.
She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in nursing from the University of Nebraska Medical Center and became a family nurse practitioner. She was working at BryanLGH Medical Center when she and her husband, Ron, decided to move to a smaller town to raise a family. Crete became home in 1998 and their family grew to include children Luke, Danny and Lindsay.
It should have been the fun stage, with nothing more pressing than elementary school schedules, ball games and baby bottles. That's why she put off getting a colonoscopy when she started having persistent fatigue, anemia and gastro-intestinal changes. When things still weren't normal six months after the birth of her daughter, she took the test, which detects polyps, tumors or ulcers in the colon.
"I figured I had an infection or a polyp or something. I thought nobody has that kind of cancer at that age."
It was much worse than a polyp.
She had a large tumor; 11 of 20 lymph nodes were cancerous.
"My first words were 'Who's going to raise my babies?'"
A specialist told her she had a 50 percent chance of survival. Hearing the black-and-white statistic was devastating.
She'll always be thankful that her gastroenterologist, Dr. Eppel, called her at home to say: "I just want you to know I believe you're going to live through this. It's going to be rough, but you'll get through."
With that phone call, Tammy said, "I started coping. I found hope."
Surgery by Dr. Stephen Nagengast, who has served Crete for many years as a visiting surgeon, removed the tumor. She began six months of chemotherapy treatment that stretched to nine because of low white blood counts and bad physical reactions to the medicine.
Doctors treated the reaction with steroids, Benadryl and medicine to control fevers. She'd take chemotherapy on Mondays, be sick for 10 days, enjoy four good days, then climb on the roller coaster car again.
"It's a ride I never could have taken without the love and support of this community, the prayers and the survivors who dropped by to give me hope with their stories of survival."
Within a few days of her diagnosis, nurses had set up a calendar of volunteers from Crete Area Medical Center, Saline Medical Specialties, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, the Crete Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department and community members, who provided meals while Tammy completed chemotherapy.
"Someone showed up at our house at 5 p.m. every single week day with a home-cooked meal. Some people I didn't even know. It was unbelievable and something my family looked forward to. I remember the boys coming in to my room on the nights I couldn't be with them to report what people brought over."
She also remembers the care at Crete Area Medical Center. When she was admitted, or on the numerous visits to outpatient because of reactions to the treatment, the staff not only took care of her, but soothed her, understanding the tiny details that can make something intolerable, bearable.
"It was so comforting to me to be cared for by the people who knew me, who knew my family, who really cared that I would survive. When I got here I felt like I could take a deep breath again."
Her parents stayed with her every other week, helping to take care of the new baby and young boys throughout chemotherapy, eventually moving to Crete.
When Tammy's treatments ended and gave way to follow-up CAT scans and blood work, she received the first good news of her battle. None of the tests showed new growths. The scariest of the tests came about six months after chemotherapy ended. She would hear the results without Ron by her side. Ron, her "lifeline" who unwaveringly told her she had nothing to worry about, was deployed with the Nebraska Army National Guard to Iraq.
The test results were clean. She celebrated with girlfriends at a coffee shop and shared the news with Ron by Skype.
"It was the first time I thought I might actually make it."
Cancer survivors have told her she will reach a point when she is thankful that she had cancer. She's not there yet, she said, but she's different than before, better, someone who tries to cherish every day.
"I feel like this was really a journey to make me who I'm supposed to be. I hope I've gained some character having gone through this."
She finds she has an almost eerie connection to other cancer survivors and deep empathy for her patients with cancer. She's a medical provider who fully understands the fear cancer brings to a body and the tremendous power optimism lends to the spirit. "It's one thing to hear you have cancer. It's another to hear you have no way to fight...Get your screenings- early - so there's still that important little word: Hope."