Happy, healthy & hopeful
It's a familiar weekday morning scene for many Metro Vancouver families – kitchen disrupted from breakfast and lunch-making, refrigerator adorned with artwork and photos.
On the couch sits two-year-old Poppy, dressed in a nearly worn out princess dress topped with a homemade pink crown.
"She hasn't taken that dress off in months," her mom, CTV news anchor Tamara Taggart, says with a mix of amusement and chagrin.
As Taggart juggles incoming phone calls and appointment calendars, her husband, rock musician Dave Genn, tidies up their East Vancouver home after a whirlwind morning getting their two older children, Beckett, 5, and Zoe, 4, out the door to school.
Stanley, the family's Airedale Terrier excitedly investigates the goings-on in the household, hoping for a little extra attention, before realizing he's out of luck and flopping down for a morning nap.
The setting has all the makings of a typical hectic, yet happy, home, with no indication that slightly more than a year ago, Taggart was fighting for her life.
• • •
January 2012 should have been a time of celebration for Taggart. It marked the one-year anniversary of her promotion to news anchor at CTV, a dream job she shares with co-worker Mike Killeen.
But for a few months leading up to the new year, the former weather forecaster hadn't been feeling like herself. She was suffering from fatigue and feeling out of sorts, which her doctors chalked up to anemia.
"I was seeing specialists and going for blood tests and iron infusions, but I knew something wasn't right," she explained.
On Jan. 3 – one year to the day after taking over the anchor desk – Taggart, suffering from a massive headache, fainted at work.
Then, after spending 36 hours unable to get out of bed, Taggart got up to use the washroom and collapsed. Her husband found her on their bathroom floor and called 911; Taggart was rushed to the hospital and the deluge of testing began.
"The doctors were talking about doing a bone-marrow biopsy, mammograms, chest X-rays," she recalled. "I knew what they were looking for when they started talking like that and I was quite scared. I knew I was in trouble."
After undergoing a blood transfusion and showing no signs of improvement, doctors began looking for a source of bleeding.
What they found was a Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumour (GIST) – a 10-cm growth in her small intestine.
It is a rare medical condition that affects only 15 in one million people – of those diagnosed with a GIST, only around 30 per cent are found in the small intestine. It also doesn't respond to chemotherapy or radiation, and only in the past few decades have doctors discovered a medication to treat the condition.
"The first thing (the specialist) told me when I went to see him was '14 years ago, you would have died,'" Taggart said. "It was terrifying. If it hadn't started bleeding, who knows what would have happened."
• • •
Upon diagnosis, Taggart underwent surgery to remove the tumour – a painful and invasive procedure that rendered her unable to lift her children for six months afterwards.
She was prescribed medication – which she describes as a miracle drug – and began the long road to recovery.
Healing both physically and emotionally would prove to be difficult for the self-described "A-type" and "worrywart."
She returned to work after just three months, still suffering with terrible side effects of the medicine and adjusting to the emotional impact her near-death experience had.
"I went back to work too soon. I realize that now," she admitted. "A little too soon physically, but definitely too soon emotionally. I realize now, in hindsight, I shouldn't have done it. I was too sick and I wasn't emotionally capable of dealing with any of it."
She credits time as the best healer in her circumstance, as well as support she found in two other Lower Mainland women who had been through the same experience of being diagnosed with a GIST.
With a little adjustment of her medication dosage, she was able to greatly reduce the side effects – now the biggest difficulty she faces from the medication is water retention, especially in the mornings.
"Luckily, I do a 6 p.m. show," she quipped.
Physically, she said, she feels great.
Emotionally, she said, each month gets a little bit better as she learns to deal with such a traumatic health scare.
"I don't think about it as much today as I did, even three months ago," she said. "It was random, it was rare and it was traumatic. I have three young kids, and I tried not to think about that at all, but every now and then it would creep into my head. All I could think was that I was going to die. Zoe would probably remember me, Beckett would probably remember me a little bit, but Poppy's not going to remember who I am."
Instead of focusing on what could have been, Taggart said she tries to embrace the positive that has come from her ordeal, specifically, her outlook on life.
"It has changed everything," she said. "It has really helped me focus on what's important and why it's important. I don't sweat the small stuff. At all. Ever. One, 'cause I know the stress isn't good for me and two, because I just don't care. It's not important. I've got bigger fish to fry."
• • •
For the most part, life has returned to its normal, busy pace for Taggart and her family.
It's a delicate balancing act of school field trips with the older kids, family outings and household chores, plus the demands of being a local TV personality.
As someone who has never really stuck to an exercise regime long-term, Taggart is now committed to keeping physically active on a regular basis.
"Every doctor I talked to said the same thing: 'All you need to do is exercise three times a week, minimum. It's the best thing you can do for your life'"
The type, size and location of the tumour places Taggart as high risk for reoccurrence, so she is monitored closely by her doctors, going for CT scans every three to four months.
She will likely need to stay on the medication for a few more years, perhaps longer, or even for the rest of her life.
Although she had a hard time not dwelling on the statistics at first – she has a 55 per cent chance of reoccurrence without the medication; the rate is cut in half if she takes the medication for three years – she has learned how to stay optimistic.
"You always have to find a place where you're able to keep a positive spin on it," she said. "Otherwise, you just drive yourself completely crazy."
Above all, her experiences over the past 14 months have reaffirmed Taggart's long-held belief that family comes before anything else.
"I was one of those people who thought you can have it all, and the more kids I had, the more I realized, I don't think you can have it all," she said, noting she has an ever-growing list of things she'd like to accomplish that more often than not, gets pushed aside.
"My family is my first priority, and they always will be my first priority – making sure my family is happy, healthy, safe and loved," she said.
"The second most important thing is my health, and then my job. As long as those three things are working together and everything is in sync, we're good."