Warrior Story: Q&A with Tania Cheater about being "blindsided by BRCA"
During these times of unprecedented uncertainty at every level of our society, I've found that there's a hunger for strength and positivity. These can be found in the inspiring stories of how others endured and overcame hardships well before COVID-19, with the learnings being relevant and applicable even, if not especially, today. I've been sharing my personal story with organizations and advising their members on how to build personal resilience, and in a similar spirit, I want to introduce you to another authentic and courageous warrior, Tania Cheater.
Tania was a dedicated, career-driven woman in the Title and Escrow industry when she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer at age 42. She braved four surgeries, chemotherapy, and an ice cap while continuing to work, fueled by the energy from her never-give-up attitude, faith, family, and friends. Through this journey, she discovered she carries a genetic mutation in her BRCA2 gene, and now strives to bring awareness to both breast cancer and such genetic mutations. Her candor reveals the emotional rollercoaster that is the foundation for resilience, while her strength of spirit reminds us of how we can face and triumph over dark times. Read on to learn more about Tania’s warrior story, what her journey taught her about strength and resilience, and what silver linings have helped her appreciate life that much more!
To start off, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
[Tania] I was born in Zululand South Africa and lived on the coast in Durban. I arrived in San Francisco in 1980 with my mom and brother as a youngster. We lived in San Jose/Los Gatos, California and were thankful to be in the land of opportunity. I have been married to my career for the past 28 years in the Title and Escrow Industry. I feel extremely passionate about kids making sure they feel loved and safe. I help support an orphanage in South Africa. I have quite a zest for adventure! I love to travel, meet new people, and discover new things. I am fortunate to be gifted at marketing, not only for work, but I have enjoyed organizing workshops around the world for mindfulness with Dave Rossi. Years ago, I started a women's networking group. Our goal is to refer, support, and improve each others' lives professionally as well as personally. I find it healing to write poetry, sing, and coach basketball. I feel best when I can help inspire others, give hope, assist them in succeeding, create positivity, and of course bring more awareness to breast cancer/BRCA gene mutations. I have been involved with BRA Day events, Cancer Care Point, organized fundraisers to donate money to breast cancer research, and always available to talk to anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer. I adore my family, friends, co workers, and clients that have been my unwavering loyal cheerleaders.
Take us back to the time your warrior story began. What happened?
My persistence in requesting another mammogram saved my life.
[Tania] February of 2016 I was diagnosed with triple negative invasive carcinoma breast cancer that was growing rapidly. A few months prior to feeling the lump, I had a mammogram which was clear. My persistence in requesting another mammogram saved my life. At the age of 42, I had never been hospitalized, so I was bracing myself for what was about to happen. I was on a mission to survive and determined to find the best team of doctors. I was on a quest for the right oncologist. I talked to one oncologist that suggested rounds of Adriamycin and Taxol to combat the tumor. After he reviewed my family's history of heart disease he was concerned whether my heart might be able to endure that treatment. He said “ let’s try it” and I said “what if my body won’t be able to take it”? He said the alternative was not good. He wanted to have me tested for the BRCA gene mutation which I had never heard of. It must be so hard for them to deliver this type of news, but when I received his call saying I was BRCA2 positive I said “What does this mean?” I had no history of breast cancer in my family so I was in total shock! He proceeded to tell me that with the tumor being triple negative and BRCA2 positive that my case was rare. I needed a double mastectomy, 8 rounds of chemo, and I had to remove my ovaries. I remember leaning over a desk in my office just sobbing. Everything hit me like a ton of bricks. If I survived, I wanted to have kids and start a family that I had been putting off. I was utterly shattered as news kept getting worse. If I knew about this gene in my 30s I would have done life differently. I would have not put off marrying my long term boyfriend who I wanted to have a family with, slowed down at work, focused more on health, and overall calibrated my life. I went to find out more about freezing my eggs and I began to feel like it was a risk for me to proceed. Time was not on my side and it was becoming all very real.
If I knew about this gene in my 30s I would have done life differently.
Then the miracles started to flow. One of my really good clients reconnected me to a friend from high school. Angelique is an amazing human and survivor! She referred me to Dr. Telli who is a Stanford doctor and a triple negative specialist. She suggested Carboplatin and Taxotere. This was going to be easier on the heart and a good protocol for triple negative patients. I felt at ease with her and felt this was the right path and she was beyond words so incredible. I was on my way one foot in front of the other to fight this battle. It was the most challenging time in my life but I felt positive and faithful! I had my double mastectomy with Dr. Karin, followed by 4 rounds of chemo (8 chemos total), with an ice cap negative 38 degrees on my head for 8 hours each chemo to try save my hair, then reconstruction with the unbelievable Dr. Zeidler, gall bladder removed, and then my ovaries with Dr. James Lilja. My concierge Dr. Sian Lindsay was awesome! I had the most unbeatable team to combat this cancer. This is in a nutshell with some tears weaved in there too.
How would you describe your reaction and mindset after receiving your diagnosis, and how did they evolve over time?
[Tania] At first I felt devastated and my life truly flashed before my eyes. I wanted to watch my brother and sister’s kids grow up, I wanted to get married, have my own family, and I wanted to see more of the world. I wanted to plead for more time with family and friends. I felt scared. Over time, I dug deep and leaned on my faith more than I ever have. There were many bumps in the road from the chemo burning my veins, throat tightening from carboplatin, feeling so sick, losing weight, losing hair, looking grey, to losing feeling in my hands and feet. There were some dark and really hard moments but overall I really tried to look for the good in every situation. It started to resonate with me more and more that every day truly was a gift and to keep faith over fear.
There were some dark and really hard moments but overall I really tried to look for the good in every situation. It started to resonate with me more and more that every day truly was a gift and to keep faith over fear.
What are the 1-2 key things that helped you through that most difficult time? What were your sources of strength?
[Tania] Everyone rallied around me like a cheer squad. My entire family was so incredible near and far! Tony was my rock who was there day in and day out, green shakes in the am, and made me any strange thing to eat that sounded good after chemo. A cook like no other, I felt so close to him, and he brought me such calm when I felt helpless. Experiencing, enduring, and living the ups and downs together was true love and I wouldn’t have wanted to go through it with anyone else. The entire Nora family, Jill and the rest of the chemo team left me speechless. My Mom was phenomenal! I could see she wanted to cry when they couldn’t find a vein or a solution but she always remained calm and strong. I was so blessed to have her there every step of the way. I felt the closest I had felt since a child to her and that unconditional love was so comforting. She had many hours during surgeries and chemos but used it wisely. She has written many books but this was called Miracles by Margaret Dahl. After reading the proof, it is miraculous how many miracles had taken place in my life since birth. My brother and his family took time out of their busy lives to fly in for my surgeries as well as my Aunt and Uncle. They brought such love and comfort. I kept mind reminding myself with him being in the military that I need to think of what they go through and keep going! My sister in law is a nurse so I knew I was in good hands. My beautiful sister Kim, her husband, and adorable boys were my light and joy! My sister had the boys draw me pictures of the cross saying I love you and planned a surprise birthday party for me with a safari theme. I would read bible verses that would bring me an overwhelming peace at times when I wasn’t sure I could go on. From my friends Debra and Kai who opened their home to me after my double mastectomy to insure that I had someone with me 24 hours, to co-workers and my boss learning my favorite song "Brother" by Need to Breathe on the guitar and singing to me, to Kay buying me a life size teddy bear so I could feel what a hug felt like, my bible study group, clients, and neighbors. I honestly could go on and on. Hard to express the gratitude I feel for all those who prayed for me, gave me gifts, time, texts, cards, supported me, and kept me going every moment of each day.
What have you learned about yourself through this journey? About resilience?
[Tania] Soon after my diagnosis, I was sitting in Calvary Los Gatos church. It was a usual Sunday, but the message moved me that day. It was all about sharing your story so that it could inspire others. Soon after that I shared my diagnosis. I have always been independent and never really asked for help. I quickly learned that being vulnerable was a strength not a weakness, and to let go of the things I could not control. I went to the office most days and it gave me a sense of normalcy but, over time I learned to slow things down. Looking back and remembering how I felt I am really proud of myself. This journey I definitely learned to get up, don’t give up, and that I needed every inch of the support I received. A lending hand never goes unappreciated and it always comes full circle some way shape or form. To never underestimate the power of prayer and I keep reminding myself that everything happens for a reason.
I quickly learned that being vulnerable was a strength not a weakness, and to let go of the things I could not control.
What, if any, silver lining(s) emerged that helped you find some meaning out of your hardship?
[Tania] I feel there were many silver linings. I would look out at the trees, sky, and nature and just feel so grateful for the day. For sure a silver lining was trying to reprioritize and maintain more balance in my life. I realized how selfless and amazing people are. So overwhelmed by so much love and compassion from my family, friends, and community. I met the most wonderful people that had been on the journey before me that I would never have met as well as the team of medical professionals. There are endless incredible instances that make me tear. This journey has given me the empathy and experience to help others. To give hope and to make a difference. I am working on a site www.blindsidedbyBRCA.com because I never saw this coming. I am passionate about bringing awareness to this gene mutation so people can be proactive. I met the team at Color which is a company that does testing as I wanted another test before removing my ovaries just to be 100% sure. They were unbelievable, accurate and efficient. I also am starting a positive initiative at work called “proactive culture” ensuring that our employees feel happy and supported so it is undoubtedly felt by our clients.
What advice do you have for others who are struggling with these changing and uncertain times?
[Tania] One of the songs that helped me through chemo was "Brother" by Need to Breathe and the words carried me through. I love the lyrics “Everybody needs someone beside em' shining like a lighthouse from the sea”. I just kept thinking we all go through storms in life and things can get tough but to focus on the light and for me that was God. That light will always bring you home or back to shore like lighthouses do. To focus or keep your eyes on getting through the challenge, dark tunnel, or uncertain time. Everyone knows I love lighthouses and the one in Durban is my favorite. My friend Teresa Trobbe took a picture I had and had it painted into a canvas. It hangs on my wall and brings me joy. She is spectacular and creative! She encouraged me to do a photo shoot before my surgery and after. I am so glad I did! It was very therapeutic and gave me such confidence to embrace the new me. It reflects that life is not about losing hair, having more scars, or losing organs. What really matters is being alive, how we live, everyone has their own unique beauty, and what’s inside that counts. I am grateful to her pushing me to do it as it reminded me to always be kind to myself and cherish memories.
...we all go through storms in life and things can get tough, but to focus on the light...on getting through the challenge, dark tunnel, or uncertain time.
What parting words of advice would you want our readers to keep in mind?
[Tania] Don’t put off going for your dreams or desires because life can change in a moment. “If not now when” ? I know now more than ever do not take those you love for granted, you can never tell anyone you love them too much, and show them with actions. I called my Grandmother on the way to the hospital for one of my chemo infusions and that night she passed away. If you have the urge to call someone, do it! I still have to do scans as they are watching some nodules on my lungs. I don’t feel afraid. As my friend Dave says do not fear the outcome. His book The Imperative Habit has helped me navigate life a little better. I have really tried to make things happen; seeing a vision and going for it! I have learned to try not to sweat the small stuff. It’s so important to always find a reason to laugh and have fun in every circumstance. Ultimately, there is nothing like the warmth, grace, and peace that faith brings. A constant reminder to know You have more strength than you realize, braver than you ever imagined, and are truly loved more than you know. Each moment of the day should be treasured and what we are going to do with it. Which rings especially true right now.
It’s so important to always find a reason to laugh and have fun in every circumstance.
Who do you know that embodies a positive mindset and strength of spirit that has helped them move forward from hardships (e.g., health, career, family, home, etc.)? Please help me feature other warriors by sharing stories, big or small, with me via this submission form.
Like what you read? Get notified of new stories by entering your email information at Silver Linings Stories.
Mother. Warrior. Storyteller.
Parul is a healthcare executive and cancer survivor turned professional speaker championing health, resilience, and a positive mindset. As the Founder & CEO of Silver Linings, Parul combines her experiences as a young working mother diagnosed with breast cancer in her early 30s, a caregiver who transformed her parents' lives with her patient advocacy, and a businesswoman with 15+ years of experience in management consulting and executive roles in consumer, technology, and healthcare companies. Parul's mission is to help improve the state of healthcare by sharing her experiences, and inspiring others to live a healthy, thankful, and fulfilling life. She has shared her personal story through her cancer blog that's been read in ~80 countries, films on survivorship and mindset, TV and radio segments, podcast interviews, and public speaking engagements for organizations such as the World Economic Forum and Stanford Health Care.
Follow Parul on: