PCA 2015: Tammy's scarf
Tammy Ward pushes a color brochure across the table.
"That's our new place," she says. There's hard-earned pride in her smile.
She presses a finger on each square: the master bedroom overlooking the lake, her husband's new office, bedrooms for each of the boys. Every little thumbnail photo shows a shaft of Florida light cutting through a window.
Imagine realizing that dream: escaping Connecticut cold that makes your bones feel brittle and nor'easters that lock down the house until the clouds lift. Imagine packing the cars, driving down the East Coast, and moving into a big, open house beside that little lake 40 miles from Disneyworld.
When they moved in, Tammy found flowers on the big tub in the bathroom.
"Who sent us the housewarming gift?" she asked her husband, Mike.
"I got them for you," he told her.
Tammy pauses while she's telling that part of the story, and then she says, "He hadn't done that since the kids were born."
There's a scarf wrapped around Tammy's head, and if you're standing there listening to her tell about her new house, you wish like hell the scarf was there to keep the Florida sun off her head.
The people of the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure know Tammy well. Her husband Mike, a brash teddy bear with a laugh you can hear two counties away, has served as the Tournament Director since the event's beginnings in 2004. Many of those years, Tammy has taken a break from her work as an independent special needs instructor and made the trip to the Bahamas from Connecticut. She's served in just about every possible staff role to keep the tournament running.
She almost didn't come this year.
Nine months ago, Tammy went for her annual mammogram and her doctor gave her the all clear. Six months later, she felt sore after a trip to the gym. She thought it was muscle soreness until she felt something on the side of her left breast.
Tammy went to her doctor and a specialist. Both confirmed what she suspected.
"He leaned across the desk, put the envelope in my face, and said, 'You have breast cancer.'"
"First I was in disbelief," she said. "Then I put my head down and said, 'Okay, what's our next step?'"
The specialist told her the tumor was likely a year old. They did more tests and found another lump in her other breast. Ahead sat the entire trifecta of horrors: chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.
Tammy didn't cry. She called Mike and said, "I need you to come home."
And then she thought about four boys. They range in age from 11 to 23. Tammy has been a PTO mom for years. Her boys are her life, and she is theirs.
"I was more scared for my kids," she said.
One day, she walked through the house and found her 16-year-old's phone face down on the table. She picked it up and saw he'd turned his phone's wallpaper into a breast cancer awareness symbol.
That's when she cried a little.
Tammy has finished her first round of chemo. She hates needles, so she sleeps through the treatment.
Anyone would've forgiven her for skipping the work trip this year. She could've stayed home and rested up for the next four weeks of treatment she'll need before she has surgery in the spring. Instead, she made the trip here to Paradise Island where she has worn a different scarf over her head for the last three days. She works as much as she can, and then takes a nap if she needs it.
In the hotel room this week, she got into a conversation with her housekeeper.
"Do you have cancer?" the housekeeper asked.
"Yes, I do. I have breast cancer."
The housekeeper nodded and said, "My sister just died in June from that."
Tammy looked at the housekeeper and said. "I'm very sorry your sister passed away. But you know what? I'm going to beat this. I'm going to beat this."
The housekeeper said, "That's a positive way to look at it."
Tammy didn't hesitate. "There is no other way to look at it."
They live off Mike's income right now. She's earning nothing, and anyone who has suffered any major medical issue knows how fast money can evaporate.
Her community gathered around her, asked if she minded if they put together a fundraiser for her. She needed it, but she told them she couldn't take their money without conditions.
"I couldn't accept it," she says, "unless I could give it back."
Giving back is what Tammy does. Her community knows her as a fundraiser. Over the many years she's been raising money around town, she says she's pulled in more than a million dollars for local causes.
Now, she's gotten together with local philanthropists to form Pay it For/Ward, an organization that aims to help pay the backbreaking costs that pile up for people afflicted with cancer.
"It's more of a community giving back to that next cancer patient," she said.
Mike gets frustrated with how much time Tammy puts in, but she knows no other way.
"I cannot just lay down," she said. "My doctor told me cancer messed with the wrong damned girl."
So, now Tammy stands alongside her husband and helps him earn some money for the house. When she gets home, she'll work to heal herself. All the while, she'll work to raise money for the next person who needs it.
Not every job has the same benefits, but this one promises a payoff that's worth the effort: down in Florida, there will be a man who still buys her flowers, a house full of her boys, and a southern sun that shines down over her lake. If you squint just a little, you can already see her tying one of those scarves over her head while she watches the sunset.
"There's people worse off than what I'm going through right now," she said. "I'm breathing. I'm here. I'm alive. I'm going to make it."
Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging