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Tacoma Sao: Rediscovery

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She was 31 years old, experiencing the roller coaster of emotions that come with pregnancy, feeling nervous, excited and fearful as she entered each week and trimester. The daily fatigue she battled, she thought, was a result of her exercise regimen or possibly from her practice of yoga. She followed the doctor’s orders and the advice of her friends and family. After a routine visit to her OBGYN, she was diagnosed with placenta previa, a condition in which the placenta is unusually low in the uterus, touching or covering the cervical opening. She was labeled a high-risk pregnancy and after several episodes of bleeding, hospitalizations and bed rest, her baby was born at 32 weeks and five days. She felt relief as her daughter, Irie, was released from NICU. Finally, she could take her baby home and enjoy those quiet moments with her newborn that she had longed for. She felt the weight and stress of the pregnancy lift as she and her family cared for this beautiful baby girl. Tacoma Sao didn’t realize the weight of a breast cancer diagnosis was looming around the corner. 

The fatigue continued for the young first-time mother, but she shrugged it off to life with a newborn who was feeding every two hours. Nursing became more and more challenging and finally Tacoma decided that was one battle she was willing to concede. In the days and weeks that followed, she noticed her right breast was not decreasing in size like the left side had. She felt a lump and after consulting with friends and sisters, they urged her to see her OBGYN and Tacoma was convinced it was mastitis of the breast, which is common in nursing moms. “A friend told me, don’t worry about it. You’ll go to the doctor and they will prescribe an antibiotic; in a few days you will be fine,” recounted Tacoma. “So, that’s what I did. I went to the OBGYN and the nurse practitioner examined me. She asked me several times if I felt pain in the area, I told her no and I remember seeing a change in her facial expressions,” Tacoma described. She left the office with an appointment for a mammogram and ultrasound. Tacoma remembers feeling annoyed she didn’t have the quick fix that everyone had promised. 

The Unthinkable
A week later, with a four-month-old baby girl at home, Tacoma went to her next appointment. During the ultrasound, Tacoma learned the technician had worked in a women’s cancer institute for many years. “The room was dimly lit, and I will never forget when the technician lightly gasped and put her hand to her throat as she examined me,” Tacoma said softly. “My instincts kicked in and I knew something bad was coming. In that moment, I began to shut down,” she recalled. A biopsy came next and finally Tacoma was called for an in-person appointment to discuss her diagnosis, Stage 2A breast cancer. “The next few weeks were a blur. I knew what was happening but there was delayed processing in my mind and part of me just checked out mentally,” Tacoma conveyed. Because she was young, her doctors guided her to get genetic testing for the BRCA gene, which is a harmful genetic mutation that greatly increases a woman’s risk for breast and ovarian cancer. She tested positive for the gene. The next few months and years would forever change Tacoma’s life and alter the path she thought she was on. 

“Thinking about a bilateral mastectomy before I turned 32 years old was unimaginable,” Tacoma contended. “I was in the office and heard my doctor say the words, but I was still stuck on the diagnosis of having breast cancer,” she continued. The young mother struggled as she weighed her decisions; she didn’t see an option for a plan B or plan C. “I tried to put it off. I was devastated, I didn’t know what to do and the people around me were telling me that waiting wasn’t an option; this wasn’t a time to gamble,” she emphasized. The new mother had struggled through a high-risk pregnancy, a premature baby and now faced a cancer diagnosis head on. Tacoma went from maternity leave to a medical leave and was devastated by the choices in front of her. 

Acceptance
Tacoma’s co-workers at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton jumped into action and organized a meal train. Her family and friends gathered around her to help with the baby and everyday household work. “It was all hands on deck around here,” recounted Tacoma. “I would not be here without the support of my parents, sisters, friends and co-workers. Everyone came together to show their support, make a meal, help around the house and care for me and Irie during my treatment and surgery,” she continued. She had always been someone who was willing to help others. Accepting help from those who loved her was something she had never thought about. “I had to let go and allow my friends and family to help. It wasn’t easy for me, I had to learn to accept the help,” she admitted. Tacoma moved forward with the bilateral mastectomy and chemotherapy and finished with infusion treatments. 

“I was numb; it was hard to believe it was happening. Everything moved so quickly, I felt like I never had time to process or come to any sort of acceptance that I had breast cancer, let alone was facing a bilateral mastectomy,” she shared. Days, weeks and months after the surgery, Tacoma was overwhelmed with grief, sadness, anger and a loss of identity. “My daughter was too heavy for me to pick up and carry after my surgery. I felt an unbelievable amount of guilt that I couldn’t pick her up,” Tacoma said tearfully. At this point in our interview, Tacoma’s story was raw and she was vulnerable. We both cried as she remembered her lowest points, recounting her story for the first time and talking about her personal struggles with identity and femininity. 

Tacoma continued to describe her most painful, dark moments when she would be in the bathroom alone before a shower, undressing and looking at her reflection in the mirror without recognizing the person staring back at her. “I would cry in the bathtub. I lost my hair, my eyelashes and my breasts. So much of my identity as a woman was gone,” she shared as her voice trembled. She was a new mom, newly engaged and she questioned her worth. “I didn’t know if I was enough anymore, was I attractive anymore,” Tacoma questioned. 

Expressing Grief
When pieces of her hair began falling out around her apartment, she felt like she was losing control. “I was holding onto whatever control I thought I had,” she said. Her hair had always been important to her. She loved getting her hair done and trying new styles and colors. First, she cut her hair short because she wasn’t ready to shave her head. Finally, as sections of her hair continued to fall out, she made the decision to shave. “My daughter sat on my lap and my fiancé shaved my head. It was gut-wrenching,” she shared as tears rolled down her cheeks. 

“I remember telling myself, I should be happy I am alive, but I wasn’t allowing myself to grieve and that’s what I needed in order to move forward with my life,” she explained. Tacoma turned to social media and support groups, looking for someone to identify with. The messages on social media were flooded with confident women boasting how their breasts don’t define them. Tacoma couldn’t identify with these messages. Most of the women were older, their kids were grown and they had been married for 20 years or longer. She didn’t see a representation of her, a young woman, a new mom or her feelings of sadness and grief for her pre-cancer body. 

“I want women to know that it’s okay to be sad, to mourn, to grieve for your old self,” she said proudly. Tacoma shares her story in hopes that her experience will reach someone struggling and let them know there is someone out there who has battled with the same feelings. 

Moving Ahead
As the months and years pass, Tacoma has started her journey to rediscover her identity. She started slowly with some private yoga sessions, allowing herself to feel and let go with each breath. Her relationship with her fiancé ended and she is navigating being a single mom. The steps to her acceptance of breast cancer and her new body have been the hardest challenge of her life, but she does it with grace and honesty. Tacoma’s cover story marks the tenth anniversary of Pink October editions with HERLIFE Magazine in the Central Valley. Tacoma has moved me and touched me so deeply with her vulnerability and raw emotion. I am honored and beyond proud to have the opportunity to share her message.