“Nothing can dim the light that shines from within.” —Maya Angelou
I meet Tessa at the Dillsburg Home Brew Fest held November 2016—my husband, Brooks, owns Hemauer Brewing Company and I went along to help pour his beer at the event. (NOTE: If you’d like to try some of Brooks’ beer, please check out the upcoming beer pouring events HERE.)
I offered a $500.00 gift card as a raffle prize at the Brew Fest—all monies raised were going to the Cpl. Dane Freedman Service Dog Foundation, an organization that raises money to help veterans receive a service dog—Tessa saw the raffle prize and decided to enter, never expecting to win. The picture below is me and Tessa, after she learned she won the raffle.
A few nights after Tessa won, I called her to start the process of planning her session, but I soon found out that the cancer she’s been battling for the past seven years had come back in full force—she had just learned this news herself. I listened to her as she spoke through her tears of this devastating news BUT yet she was beyond thrilled to have won the raffle because this was something she had always wanted to do. It was on her bucket list.
So, I present to you her story, in her in own words. You may find there are a few details here and there that should be added (I know I was left with questions), but Tessa has a lot going on right now, didn’t really have the energy to fine-tune, and I didn’t want to push.
Two weeks before Thanksgiving in 2010, at the age of 22, my pap smear came back abnormal. My doctors sent me to a specialist in St Louis, who confirmed I had Stage II uterine cancer, and in early December of that year I started a chemo schedule of one week for three days, then two weeks off, only to start all over again for six weeks.
I was tired. I was scared. But I didn’t want to burden anyone before the holidays, so I kept it a secret and talked to no one about the cancer except the doctors who saw me almost on a daily basis. I found internal strength to keep moving forward because I wanted to see my nieces and nephews grow up, so at first I acted like nothing was wrong because I felt I had to be strong for them. But in the beginning of 2011 I did tell my dad and friends what was going on in my life, and sadly, I lost friends and even some family in the process—thinking back now, it is still just as heartbreaking.
During a checkup in early 2011, the doctors found the cancer spread to my ovaries and I was now in Stage III uterine cancer. The doctors said the best thing to do was to have a hysterectomy; I wanted an alternative. I was only in my early 20’s! “What if I want kids?” I asked my doctors, to which they replied, “What if you don’t make it to your next birthday?”
Really, I only had two options the doctors told me: 1) have laparoscopic surgery to remove the tumors on the ovaries or, 2) continue with radiation and chemo.
I didn’t feel surgery was the answer at that time, so I went with option #2, where for three months I did chemo cocktails for six hours a day and radiation five days a week with the hope to shrink and dissipate those pesky little monsters. Slowly the cancer shrank and the uterine cancer disappeared! I was gaining weight back, my hair was growing back, and I could enjoy things again.
I was proud I had kept my confidence, that I never stopped believing I was going to be okay. I was happy again. I felt safe.
I felt like I had won.
To celebrate, my dad and I traveled to Dubai to ring in 2012—after all, I beat some very aggressive cancer and my outlook looked great. There was everything to be excited about. I knew I was going to be okay, and that in a blink of an eye five years would pass and I would be able to be put on “full remission” status.
Well. If this story was a fairy tale then that would be how it ends, but my story isn’t a fairy tale.
In mid-2012, at a checkup, my ovaries lit up like a Christmas tree during testing. I had even more tumors—some benign, some malignant—but the worst came in the form of a stray tumor that had made its way next to my thoracic (t5) spine. I was faced with the same treatments options as before—but this time my doctor strongly suggested the hysterectomy. “Do you realize how serious this will be for you?” my doctor asked me. “I cannot promise you will make it to your 25th birthday if we don’t remove the main cause of the problem. We have to take out what is causing the cancer or we will not be able to stop it. It is spreading, you will continue to get worse, and I’m not sure we can help at that point.”
You are probably thinking my next step is obvious—have the hysterectomy—but I needed time to think. And the more I did research and thought about my options, the more I felt having the surgery would cause the cancer to spread even more rapidly. In my heart, I knew I couldn’t have the surgery, and after informing my doctor I wasn’t going to have the hysterectomy, my doctor looked at me and said, “I won’t tell you you’re smart, but I will tell you you’re brave.”
I had to attend counseling to make sure I understood what could happen and to help me accept death. It was difficult, but I decided if I was going to die, then I was going to have the best damn year of my life! So I went to all of my nieces’ and nephews’ sport games…I went to the movies…I spent time with my friends…and, well, I just lived.
During this time I begun aggressive radiation on my spine, started chemo again, and had laparoscopic surgeries to remove the tumors from my ovaries. But I was getting weaker; after four weeks of treatment the cancer on my spine was not responding, and unfortunately, the tumors were inoperable because they were too close to the nerves.
My doctors didn’t know what to do next—they were afraid the cancer would spread and it would be untouchable. I had the same fears, but yet I truly believed our plan of action up to that point was right for me. And I accepted that.
It also helped I three important people in my life who make sure I am taken care of: my best friend, my dad, and my grandpa. I felt lucky to have them! I know it was difficult to hear me talk about my funeral arrangements, or discuss casket options, but they never said a word and just let me talk.
The last week in August 2012, I went to see my doctors to discuss stopping treatment and living out the rest of my life. We ran a few tests and something magical happened: my ovaries where clean and the cancer on my spine moved 1/8″! You would have thought it moved a mile! So we continued on with radiation, and bit by bit the cancer on my spine shrank—by the middle of November 2012 it was gone.
I learned a lot that year, but with everything I really learned about me and how to enjoy the small things in life. I also learned that just because things disappear doesn’t mean they’re gone for good.
In March of 2013 I moved from my home state of Illinois to Pennsylvania because I wanted a new start: I had no children, I was not married, and if anything I learned you only have one life to live. Let me just say, 2013 was an amazing year—I was healthy, I made friends, saw new things, and tried weird foods. I was happy.
In 2014 I met a great guy and I was living as a healthy 26-year-old woman should, but in the spring of 2015, I started getting sick. I was lethargic—I didn’t feel right—so I saw the doctors at the Cancer Treatment Center in Philadelphia, and after doing scans and tests, I learned the tumors had come back again. Only this time, I had a new problem: I was getting migraines constantly and my vision was deteriorating.
The doctors told me I needed a hysterectomy and again I said no. They asked me if I understood that with the severity of my medical history, this cancer would eventually kill me. They told me I had escaped death many times, but eventually it would catch up with me because cancer just doesn’t disappear—it’s still in my body and it will be back.
It was hard to hear, and I knew it was the truth, but I told them I was still not having the surgery.
And for the first time someone asked me, “Why won’t you have the surgery?” My answer was simple: I was afraid. I was afraid if I had the surgery I wouldn’t be a women anymore, that I would lose myself, and I would never find my way back. I was afraid I could never have children (though I always wanted to adopt anyway). I was afraid that the minute they cut me open, the cancer would spread out of control. And perhaps I was trying to be ignorant as well, because if you don’t think about something, then maybe it will go away.
I did agree to have surgery to remove a tumor from one of the ovaries, and as strange as it sounds, most of 2015 was pretty calm in terms of treatment.
Toward the end of 2016, I noticed I was getting migraines four to five times a week, that I didn’t have much of an appetite, my vision was changing, my periods were worse, and I was tired all the time. My blood showed my potassium levels had bottomed out. For the last few weeks of 2016/beginning of 2017, I had to go in weekly for IV fluids of potassium and new blood platelets to see if that helped.
If I have learned anything in my journey, it’s that life can be rough and seem unfair. The doctors didn’t know if I would make it past 25, and here I am now 29. Some doctors don’t think I will make it to my 30th birthday but I will prove them wrong—I have big plans for that birthday.
But sadly the doctors say I have about four or five good years left, and if they are right, then these are about to be the best years of my life. I know someday soon, I won’t remember the happy times—the years of treatment are taking away my short-term memory and causing early-onset dementia. I know I will forget the people around me. I know one day I will wake up and not remember who I am. But for now I have to believe that I deserve to be here every day that I wake up, I have to believe in myself because no one else can do that for me. And when that day comes, I’ll be okay with it. In the mean time, I just keep believing I’ll be OK.
And when my story ends I believe my light will shine even after I’m gone.
Tessa’s “Moving Portrait” Video | Shannon Hemauer Photography
Something I find remarkable with my I BELIEVE Project recipients—how much joy they have in their smiles. Every one of my past winners have been an inspiration to me and my team. They have this appreciation for life that I cannot put into words.
Again, I am honored I got to help tell another amazing woman’s story.
A huge thank you to my lead stylist, Nath Mao, who offered her services for Tessa’s session, and to Alisha the Assistant, who can make a raincloud smile.
Until next time,