Gainesville Daily Register

July 19, 2011

Firefighting family

By DELANIA TRIGG, Assistant Editor
Gainesville Daily Register

Gainesville — Tamara Sieger describes herself as being “in the best health of my life” when she found out she had breast cancer.

As she approaches the one year anniversary of her diagnosis, friends are planning a benefit fish fry and silent auction to help her and her family offset the costs of treatment which includes frequent trips to U.T. Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

The event is set for 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday at the Knights of Columbus Hall at 1725 N. Interstate Highway 35 in Gainesville.

Sieger said even before her diagnosis, she tried to be proactive about her health.

“I thought I was doing everything right,” she said.

She exercised. She maintained her ideal weight. And she got yearly mammograms.

“One thing I’ve learned is that cancer doesn’t discriminate,” she said.

A mammogram performed in the spring of 2010 revealed nothing out of the ordinary.

Her diagnosis, she said, was a bit like being struck by lighting.

“At my age, I had a less than one percent chance of getting this,” she said.

Sieger, who was 39 at the time of her diagnosis, said she’s thankful she found the lump and sought swift medical evaluation.

“The lesson I’ve learned, given the diagnosis I received, is that if I hadn’t found the lump myself, this story would be completely different,” she said.

It’s not that she doesn’t think mammograms are a useful diagnostic tool. She just believes women should take control of their own health.

“You know your body better than anyone else does,” she said. “You know what’s normal and what’s not.”

Sieger said she hasn’t spent much time feeling sorry for herself but does concede her cancer is a particularly aggressive Stage 3-4 invasive ductile carcinoma.

In addition to removing the cancerous tissue and a margin of healthy tissue along with the tumors, doctors removed more than 20 lymph nodes near and around her left arm and chest.

It’s been a painful process, but Sieger prefers to focus her energy on the positive aspects of her fight with cancer.

She said she considers her ordeal a “life-threatening challenge” that helped her appreciate every new day.

She has long been a breast cancer research advocate. After her diagnosis, she stepped up her efforts. Her work now includes participation in Janice Lawson’s new breast cancer survivor group Still Blessed with One Less.

Sieger said the group is dedicated to helping make breast cancer screening available to low income women.

She said she cannot help but look for the positive aspects.

“I am a Christian and I know we are not faced with anything we cannot overcome with God’s help,” she said. “I truly believe there is some positive in this darkness. If I can influence a life in a positive way it was worth every single thing I’ve endured. I want to somehow articulate that I am fully giving God the glory for all He has done in me through the prayers of so many and my phenomenal team of doctors at UT Southwestern.”

Sieger is also a dynamo at work, spending as much time as she can at her office in Gainesville’s public safety building.

Sieger has been a city of Gainesville employee for over two decades — spending 15 years with the Gainesville Fire Department where she is the department’s administrative assistant and emergency management officer.

Sieger worked for the Gainesville Police Department for six years prior to accepting the job with the fire department.

Her years with the city have helped her cultivate a dedicated group of friends.

The pink sign affixed to the fire department’s training tower conveys the feelings of most of the people who know Sieger. It reads, “We (love) Taz.”

Sieger said “Taz” has been her department nickname for years.

“I don’t even remember which one of the guys gave it to me,” she said, smiling.

While the name “Taz” could just as easily describe her energy and industrious approach to work, Sieger said that isn’t the case.

“When you work in a department of men, sometimes you have to stand your ground,” she said. “I like to think the name ‘Taz’ refers to my feisty spirit.”

Nicknames are a tradition among firefighters, she pointed out.

“All the guys give each other nicknames,” she said. “It’s part of the brotherhood of firefighters.”

Being given a nickname meant she was part of the family.

“They consider me their sister and I consider them my brothers,” she said.

Of the benefit dinner and silent auction, Sieger admits she and her husband Chad were at first reluctant to accept assistance.

“One very difficult thing about being a Type A personality is to allow someone to help in a time of need,” she said. “My husband and I were used to doing things for ourselves. Accepting help from people isn’t easy for us.”

However, Sieger concedes sometimes help is necessary.

‘Our friends, Randy and Robin Wilson, said they wanted to do a benefit for us,” she said. “They were persistent and they said many other people wanted to help. I know from experience that organizing a benefit is a labor of love and I definitely feel that love from the people who are doing this for us.”

Cancer treatment has changed Sieger’s life including her appearance.

About two months into a brutal six-month chemotherapy regime last year, she began losing her hair, eyebrows and lashes.

She had chosen not to cut her hair before beginning chemotherapy.

“I hung on to it as long as I could,” she said.

When her long, sleek brown hair began falling out in clumps, Sieger cut it herself and began wearing pretty hats.

By the time she celebrated her 40th birthday this year, she said she was bald and thin and sick — but not broken.

She approached the physical changes with a buoyancy that belied her circumstances.

In photos taken during her chemotherapy regime, she’s smiling. She looks grateful to be alive and determined to beat cancer.

Sieger makes a point to be in her office as much as possible depite her schedule which includes frequent radiation treatments.

She also takes time with her appearance.

Her thick hair is growing back “about a half inch a month,” she said.

She wears it in a cute pixie cut which makes her look a little like actress Emma Thompson.

Seated behind her desk, she’s vibrant and almost always smiling, but admits her disease has taken a toll both physically and financially.

Insurance doesn’t cover all her treatment-related expenses and transportation costs to UT Southwestern are enormous.

She said she’s grateful for the help she’s been given and seems genuinely surprised that so many people care about her welfare.

She said she recently passed First State Bank on East California Street and saw the announcement for her upcoming benefit on the company’s scrolling marquee.

“I saw my name up there and I feel truly humbled and blessed,” she said. “Who am I to have so many people care about me?”

For more information on Tamara Sieger’s benefit fish fry call Randy and Robin Wilson at (940) 736-5396 or (940) 726-6230.

To follow her progress visit her blog site at caringbridge.org.