BREAST CANCER SURVIVOR: PA native unbreakable in breast cancer & pandemic battles
Tonja Voorhies was no stranger to mammograms. She had been getting them yearly since she was 25 years old.
She was used to the routine. She would go to the doctor, get the test and soon after, she would receive a letter in the mail saying everything was good.
In May 2019, that did not happen, she said.
“I didn’t get any paperwork,” she said. “They didn’t send anything in the mail. A month passed, I just called the place. They answered and asked if I had called my doctor and told me they had sent the results over.”
Voorhies said she thought the change was strange but did not think too much of it.
“The doctor called me and was really apologetic, because no one had called me to give me that information,” she said. “I needed to come in the next day because a whole month had gone by. She gave me the news that it was suspicious.”
A biopsy and MRI confirmed the doctor’s suspicion of breast cancer, and Voorhies was referred to MD Anderson in Houston.
“Everything was pretty fast,” she said. “They set me up with my team. I met the oncologist, the surgeon, the radiologist — you meet your whole team, which is everyone that you could potentially be involved with. It doesn’t mean that you will need them, but that you could.”
After doctors informed her the prognosis was good, they laid out a map of what the next few months would look like.
Voorhies began chemotherapy treatment, but after a few weeks, doctors did not like the rate at which the tumors were being affected and moved on to a stronger treatment, commonly referred to as “The Red Devil” for its strength.
“I started that in August and completed my last chemo treatment Dec. 30,” she said.
Throughout her treatment, she continued to work at the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.
“My boss, Zena Stephens, was great about working around my schedule,” Voorhies said. “I had amazing coworkers that would send me care packages and make meals for me. They were really great.”
After completing treatments and consulting with her doctors, Voorhies had a lumpectomy.
“We did that in February,” she said. “After that, I had to do immunotherapy and radiation treatment.”
Voorhies began daily radiation treatment in March but soon learned her routine was about to change.
“We were en route to my appointment, which was on a Monday,” she said. “We knew the pandemic hit, but didn’t know how it impacted the hospital. We drove all the way to Houston and got there and it was 7 a.m. We knew it would be a long day.”
That is when Voorhies got a notification on her phone that all of her appointments were canceled.
“I said we are going to these appointments. We drove all the way here,” she said. “We saw these women coming off the elevator and they were really upset. She told me that my husband wouldn’t be able go with me. I thought he’d be OK, because he had been to all of the other appointments. She told me that they had flown in to be with their mother who had all these conditions and that the hospital wouldn’t let them in.”
Voorhies told her husband, Fredrick Voorhies, that they would try to tell the staff he needed to push her in a wheelchair to her appointments.
“That was going to be our thing to get him in,” she said laughing. “Everything was shutdown. They had people there waiting to push me and everything. There was this overwhelming emotion that came over me because I always wondered about something going wrong.”
Fredrick Voorhies had been with his wife to every appointment prior, offering a shoulder for his wife to lean on. Tonja Voorhies said her husband went to wait in the parking garage, where cellphone reception was sporadic at best.
“He had to learn to park in a certain area to get the signal,” she said. “(During the first time without Fredrick), I was in there bawling my eyes out. He couldn’t get reception.”
Fredrick Voorhies adjusted to dropping his wife off at her appointments before going to nearby parks and stores, where he had better reception to talk to his wife and to work from his computer while he waited.
Tonja Voorhies is currently in remission and still gets emotional talking about the day she was able to ring the bell at MD Anderson, signaling her victory.
“Oh my God,” she said. “It was a strange feeling. You get close to your team and get this strange connection. You see these people all the time. You realize that you aren’t going to see them again. I had those emotions. The second one was that we were in the middle of the pandemic so I couldn’t have my family there. They were on a Zoom call and got to watch me do it from there though.”
Voorhies thanked her friends and family who kept her illness quiet until she was ready.
“People say that you can’t tell anyone a secret if you don’t want it to get out,” she said. “I can’t thank them enough. I told people and asked them to let me share it on my time and they did. They kept it close. I know it was hard, because they were grieving with me. They did that for me. They let me say it to the world when I was ready to.”
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