While 2001 was an especially trying year for most Americans, Tanja Cebula had an added layer of hardship. Shortly after 9/11, on her twin boys’ 6th birthday, Tanja found out she had HER 2 positive estrogen receptor negative breast cancer. A mammogram at 40 revealed benign calcifications that were initially thought to be because of breast feeding, but a later ultrasound and biopsy would reveal cancer. She notes that she cancelled the appointment twice and feels grateful she finally showed up to her third reschedule. It would end up saving her life.
With twin boys and a seven year old daughter at home, Tanja entered treatment, which consisted of a double mastectomy and chemotherapy, followed by reconstruction. The experience impacted the entire family: “it exposed my children to medicine and healthcare at a young age and they were able to see these doctors who were so passionate about their patients.” Indeed, it may not be coincidence that her daughter is now an ER doctor at Beth Israel in Boston. More so, Tanja notes that after treatment, the entire family approached life with more balance: “you make choices that benefit your family and prioritize things that you often neglected on an account of being too busy.” Tanja and her husband took up running in an effort to emphasize exercise and a healthy diet. After running the Denver marathon, she qualified for Boston and completed the race in 2008.
Upon reflecting on her time during treatment, Tanja talks about the small things that stuck with her. A friend sent her a card every week. A small, but mighty gesture in the mind of someone battling the unimaginable. Of particular poignancy is the time her father shaved her head: “I felt I couldn’t control anything, but I could control when I lost my hair, so I sat in the garage crying while my dad buzzed my head. I felt bad for my dad to witness it, but he helped me take back that control.” When wigs were too uncomfortable, she began wearing bandanas. A particular one- military fatigue in color- was a favorite and she smiles at the memory of her son showing up in the exact same bandana day after day: “it was his way of being with me and part of my journey.” Perhaps another coincidence that her son is now an army ranger.
A final reflection comes when asked if she considers herself a survivor. With a big smile, Tanja says “absolutely” and says November 2, 2001, the day of her double mastectomy, was the day she earned the title.