By SONYA ROBERTS-WOODS/Publisher
EDITOR’S NOTE: Mount Pleasant resident Tonya Taylor first told her story of survival 25 years ago. Celebrating the milestone, 25 years later, her story still serves to remind others of the power of faith in God, family and a core circle of friends. This anniversary article was also shared with and first appeared in the Mount Pleasant Tribune’s Oct. 27, 2018 edition.
Another October has just passed, but the one this year was quite significant because it marked 25 years since Mount Pleasant resident Tonya Taylor first heard four words that would forever change her life.
In October 1993, Taylor had just turned 25 and celebrated her first wedding anniversary. She was also about to be a first-time mother. Life couldn’t be any better for the young labor and delivery nurse.
And then she noticed a lump on her breast a couple of weeks after her birthday. At the time, she really thought nothing of it, but decided to mention it at her next regular appointment with her OB/GYN, Dr. Robert Witherspoon. He then ordered an ultrasound.
“At the time, I really thought it was just my hormones,” Taylor said. “They are obviously different and all over the place because I was pregnant. That’s what I kept telling myself.”
The initial ultrasound results were inconclusive and didn’t provide a definitive diagnosis either way. Dr. Witherspoon decided to send Taylor to, at the time, one of the premiere surgical oncologists specializing in breast cancer, Dr. Sally Knox, at Baylor Medical Center in Dallas. Dr. Knox ordered a mammogram
“Breast cancer did not run in my family,” Taylor explained, “so I still didn’t think anything more than that. As I was carrying the (mammogram) films back to her office, I looked at them and thought ‘I’m too young to have breast cancer and I don’t even fit the profile.’”
Knox then ordered a biopsy to be performed two days later on that Thursday. Taylor, her husband, John, and her mother Nancy McGonagill and stepfather Gary, drove up in two separate cars that day so that mother and daughter could do fun things in Dallas after the procedure.
“Mom and I had planned to go baby shopping that day after the biopsy so we were going to send the men home after we all left the hospital.”
But after the biopsy, Taylor suddenly noticed a change in the demeanor of those around her.
“I just remember things at first were kind of jovial and then, all of a sudden, it got very quiet in the room,” she recalled. “They wheeled me out of the recovery area and then they put me in kind of own little spot and the next thing I knew everyone was there.”
Taylor was then joined by her father, mother, husband and Dr. Knox.
“Dr. Knox took my hand and with tears in her eyes she said ‘you have breast cancer,” Taylor explained. “I was dumbfounded. It was the last thing I expected to hear. She then said to me: ‘I want you to go home, sleep off the anesthesia, get your list of questions together and come back tomorrow.”
On the way home, Taylor kept getting calls on her bag phone (the norm in the 90s) from other family members and friends who wanted to just check on her thinking everything was fine. One particular caller, however, had already heard the devastating news.
“It was hard to own up to the fact that I did have breast cancer,” she said. “I was numb the whole way home.”
The following day, Taylor and her family went back to Dallas and visited with Dr. Knox for two hours asking questions about everything.
“My first priority was Joe Hill,” she said. “We already knew we were having a boy and we had named him. He was absolutely the first thing I thought about.”
Dr. Knox then advised Taylor to see Dr. Stephen Jones, another Baylor oncologist. After their meeting on Friday, Oct. 1, Taylor opted for a mastectomy. At the time, tests showed Taylor’s margins were all free and clear from the tumor that had been removed. Her mastectomy was performed exactly a week later, on Oct. 8. Doctors later determined that her margins were not free and clear and had, in fact, invaded the rest of her breast and into the lymph nodes. She was now a Stage 3 breast cancer patient and post-mastectomy chemotherapy would be required.
“I was 30 weeks pregnant so I couldn’t receive aggressive chemo,” Taylor said. “I spent three days in Baylor in the high-risk special unit at Baylor. I remember my colleagues from TRMC (Titus Regional Medical Center) were there at my bedside while I was at Baylor watching the fetal monitor and making sure both the baby and me were OK.”
Taylor and doctors then launched Operation Deliver a Healthy Baby. The plan was to induce her on Nov. 1, at 34 weeks, and for her to deliver naturally. A C-section would require more recovery time—something Taylor needed to avoid. She had to deliver her son and start chemotherapy almost immediately. When Taylor arrived at Baylor the morning of Nov. 1, she had already dilated on her own.
“Look at God,” she said.
And the miracles just kept coming. That afternoon, she delivered a healthy baby boy, named after his paternal grandfather, weighing in at 6 pounds, 13 ounces and 19 inches long. He was six weeks premature, but a pound larger than doctors expected.
“I was ecstatic to be a mom and just so thankful he was healthy,” she said.
A week after giving birth, Taylor received her first round of treatment, an aggressive dose of chemotherapy. In fact, Taylor agreed to be a part of a clinical trial that would require double-dose treatments with every treatment she received. She would lose her hair in 14 days, but she would also receive the best nausea medicine to help with the often-debilitating side effects.
“I truly believe the drugs I received is why it’s on the market today,” she said. “To be a part of that, breast cancer history, and to have that kind of impact for me is amazing especially as a nurse. I know what I went through has helped to save other lives.”
After returning home with a new baby and her first round of treatment under her belt, the instinctive nurse didn’t quite feel right on Nov. 13.
“It felt like there was an enormous weight on my chest,” Taylor said.
A trip to Titus Regional’s ER eventually led to a return back to Baylor.
“Because I was in a clinical trial, I couldn’t risk it,” she said. “There was too much at stake. I had to get back to Dallas.”
Baylor physicians discovered Taylor had two blood clots on her left lung. She spent the next 10 days on complete bed rest. She recovered and was able to spend Thanksgiving at home. But on her next to last treatment, she developed pneumonia. But Taylor persevered. In Spring 1994, three weeks after her last treatment, she heard three magical words.
“Dr. Jones put both hands on my shoulders and said ‘you are cured. I have a daughter your age. If she had been presented with this and diagnosed, this is how I would have treated her. You have this whipped.’”
Taylor remembers Easter came late that year, but with a clean bill of health, she was finally home for good. And for the next five years she didn’t return to nursing. She stayed at home until Joe entered kindergarten.
Now 25 years later, Taylor reflects on what got her through those tough times.
“I had so much prayer and support,” she said. “In fact, my friends and family in my hometown of Deport (she moved to Mount Pleasant at age 9) held a 24-hour prayer vigil the day I had the mastectomy. I know, for a fact, that attributed to how well I did. I could not have asked for a more spiritual experience. I had tremendous peace before going in to have my mastectomy and I know it was because of the power of prayer. I remember the waiting room was full when I had surgery and also when I had Joe. You would have thought I was a celebrity when I think back on how many people showed their love and support for me and my family. And to think, there were tons more who weren’t there who were back home praying. That is something I will never forget.”
Taylor will also never forget the home-cooked meals that would just show up on her doorstep like clockwork.
“When I got home from the hospital, friends and family members cooked for us.” Taylor said. “They had a schedule. They took turns bringing food to us. It was so awesome.”
What is also awesome is that Joe Hill Taylor, who works in North Dakota on a wind turbine farm, is now able to celebrate his 25th birthday.
“Unfortunately, Joe’s Dad and I, our marriage, did not survive,” she said. “There were a lot of factors. I think everything that we went through had some bearing on it. It was hard. It happened in the early part of our marriage so that’s tough, but today we still collaboratively parent our (adult) son and that’s a blessing.”
Employed at Northeast Texas Community College for the past almost six years, Taylor has been the Director of Nursing and Associate Professor for the past three years. Taylor received her first nursing degree from NTCC. She is now on track to receive her Doctorate of Nursing Practice degree in 2019 from Walden University.
“It is an honor to return to where it all started for me as a nurse,” Taylor said. “I just love what I do here at NTCC. It’s a full-circle experience for me being here. “
Since her breast cancer diagnosis, Taylor has had other health issues including rheumatoid arthritis and several back surgeries, but she credits her unwavering faith with getting her through each obstacle.
“It tells me that it is God working,” she said. “If He could use me at 25 to get people to pray that weren’t, 25 years later He can still use me to continue praying and to get others to pray. I know I am doing His work and I am so humbled.”
Since then, Taylor has also suffered the devastating loss of two key women in her life: her grandmother in 2009 and her mother in 2012. Both women were rocks throughout her life.
“It was tough losing them, but I will always keep a piece of them in my heart.”
When she’s not mentoring nursing students, Taylor enjoys the company of her longtime love Denny Bragg and their family of Yorkies and a dachshund. She also likes to cook and “antique.” She is a member of North Ridge Church of Christ and also serves as president of the Cypress Basin Hospice Board of Directors.
Taylor was honored with the prestigious Baylor Circle of Care award in 2001 and is also featured in a book written by Dr. Knox, who has now retired, called The Breast Cancer Care Book: A survival Guide for Patients and Loved Ones.
“I have had some dark times over the last 25 years, but it has been by faith that pulled me through and got me here today,” she said. “Those dark times are how I have grown as a Christian. I truly believe my journey speaks volumes for what God can do.”