Faith, family help McClung beat battle with breast cancer

Published 9:15 am Saturday, October 21, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Despite no family history and against all odds, Tari McClung found out she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, but thanks to some quick tests and countless prayers, she is five years removed and now cancer-free.

McClung relied on her faith and family when she first found out she had breast cancer. (PHOTO BY ZACK MAIO)

Her journey began on Sept. 25, 2018, while she was in Baltimore, Maryland, with her older sister. It was then when she received a phone call about an area of concern on her mammogram.

“We were waiting to board an airplane back to Andalusia from a work conference. I tried to ask questions, but the only thing the nurse could tell me was there was an area of concern that needed to be checked. She explained they would perform another mammogram, and the radiologist would check the mammogram while I was there and then they would decide if an ultrasound needed to be done. My husband had to sit in the waiting room when they took me back for the mammogram. The doctor came in and said she wanted to do an ultrasound on the area that showed up on the mammogram, and a biopsy would be needed to check the area. She explained it was small, but it was an odd shape and had some attributes that were concerning,” McClung said.

“All I wanted to do was to get to my husband. It was a long walk, and I had moved rooms several times but saw a familiar face who took me to him. The entire time, she encouraged me and assured me she would be with me through every step. It was a long drive home, and a lot of thoughts went through my head. Everything seemed to be moving at lightning speed and at a snail’s pace at the same time.”

McClung will celebrate five years of being cancer free in January 2024. (PHOTO BY ZACK MAIO)

Her friend, a mammographer, scheduled her biopsy with the doctor on a Thursday afternoon and told her it would be the following Monday before the results came back.

“She told me she would call me a few minutes before the doctor called, so I would have time to have someone with me. It was a stressful weekend, but with a busy house full of kids, life kept going and helped me stay busy. The doctor called me on Oct. 22, 2018, shortly after 10 a.m. I put the phone on speaker because I had a gut feeling what the doctor was going to say and wanted someone else to hear my results. The doctor confirmed my fear, at the age of 42, I had invasive ductal carcinoma breast cancer. My husband walked into the room right when the call ended,” she said.

McClung added that it was an understatement to call those few minutes emotional.

“At that moment life changed forever. That may sound dramatic, but being told you have cancer is truly life changing. Everything you have heard about cancer floods your mind. I knew wonderful women who had passed away from breast cancer, and the fear consumed me. We did not tell many people what was going on over those few weeks prior, but I knew my parents were waiting to hear from me, so my husband drove me to them. As hard as it was to listen to a doctor tell me I had cancer, it was harder to say those words to my parents. Then, we had to make the call to our daughter in Troy and the rest of our family. I called my family doctor and told the nurse what was going on. We met with him after he saw all his patients at the end of that day, discussed options, and made a plan.”

An appointment was scheduled with a breast surgical oncologist at UAB. McClung and her husband went to UAB’s Kirklin Clinic for another round of tests a few days after the appointment was made.

“We met with the surgical oncologist, medical oncologist, and radiation oncologist, all at one time. In one small room, the five of us discussed all the tests and options, and a plan was made for my treatment. When I left that room, I had peace I really cannot explain and had a better understanding of what I was facing. To be told it was caught early thanks to my routine mammogram made me feel much better about the journey ahead. There were still a lot of unknowns until I had surgery, but the initial plan was surgery, chemo, and radiation. Four weeks later, I went in for surgery to remove the cancer and went back for my follow-up and to get the pathology reports a couple of weeks later,” McClung said.

Her final diagnosis was Stage 2, and testing also revealed the cancer was hormone driven.

“This meant the cancer was more extensive than they originally thought, which was another big blow. The good news was, at the rate the cancer cells reproduced and my score for recurrence both tested low, so I did not need IV chemotherapy. That was an answered prayer. With the cancer removed in January of 2019, I was officially considered cancer free. The next step was six weeks of radiation and a full hysterectomy to prevent a reoccurrence and kill any cells that could still be alive.”

McClung’s final surgery took place in May of 2019.

“The final step was to start a hormone therapy drug that I would take daily for 10 years. I had terrible side effects from the first two drugs I took. I have had minimal side effects from the third one and have been able to take it for three years now. I still go every six months for tests, but as I am approaching my five-year mark of being cancer-free, they will begin to stretch the appointments out even further. I used to fear going for tests, but as time went on, I didn’t mind going for the checkups. What used to make me fearful now gives me peace of mind,” she said.

She knew the Lord was watching over her and reflected on her journey from that time.

“I look back and see so many times God placed His hand on my life. I knew God was in control and was guiding my path in every step. I did not understand why He allowed me to have cancer, and yes I asked Him why, but through it all, I trusted him completely. I had to give the fear over to God. Some days, it seemed I would give it to God and take it back in the next breath, but He always met me where I was at and helped me make the next step. He sent so many wonderful people who had walked this path before me. Some were still going through treatments, and some had completed theirs years before. Each of them reached out to let me know they were there if I ever needed anything, needed to talk, or had any questions. They gave me advice and tips and told me questions to ask I never would have known to ask. Some of those ladies are now lifelong friends I cannot thank enough for always being there. One of them I admire immensely is now with Jesus. Even through her battle, she supported and encouraged us all and is greatly missed.”

McClung referred to cancer as a mental battle in addition to it being a physical battle.

“Almost five years later, some days I still think about the what-ifs: could it come back and am I doing everything I can to prevent it? Cancer is a battle that not only affects you but also your entire family. It takes a toll physically, mentally, and financially. There were dozens of trips to UAB, Montgomery, and our local doctors. Insurance is wonderful, but there were so many copays and tests insurance did not cover. Through it all, God was faithful and always provided,” she said.

She learned several things along her journey and saw her faith in the Lord grow stronger.

“We sat in a lot of waiting rooms. I searched for Christian books on breast cancer and found several I kept with me at all times. I would always smile when I opened my devotional, and it was the exact message I needed for that day. My husband and my family were a pillar of strength for me in every way. They pitched in and took care of things I couldn’t. It was hard to ask for help, and most of the time I didn’t have to, but they were just there to make sure things were taken care of. I am thankful for the friends who stepped up and the ones who made a point to call or text to check on me. Others sent messages and said they were praying for me and offered words of encouragement. For six weeks, someone drove me to Montgomery daily for radiation Monday through Friday. They took time out to be there for my family and me to give my husband and parents a break. They will never know what that meant to me,” McClung said.

She had her first mammogram at 35 and began getting one every year after turning 40.

“I had fibrocystic breast, which gives the breast a lumpy texture. The recommended age for routine screening starts at age 45. The what-ifs have crossed my mind if I had not had my first one until 45, and it is a scary though. Most insurance allows women the option to begin having mammograms at age 40, and I recommend that to everyone. It is uncomfortable for five minutes but can save your life. My cancer was caught early because of my mammogram, and the treatment was so much lighter than so many of those around me. In our small community alone, I know of six other ladies who went through breast cancer all within 18 months. It doesn’t matter how healthy you are, how well you eat, how much you exercise, and it doesn’t matter if you carry the gene or not (I do not carry the gene), anyone can get cancer. Catching it early has the best possible outcome.”

“It’s my prayer and hope October will remind ladies to schedule their mammograms. Wear pink and support local fundraisers that promote awareness. If someone has been diagnosed or is diagnosed in the future, I would love to talk to that person. Your family and friends are a vital part of the journey. Having that support from those who have walked in my shoes is something I will never forget,” she said.

Shon and Tari McClung reside in the Carolina community and will celebrate 29 years of marriage on Dec. 10 this year. They are the parents of Sarah, 23, Emma, 14, AJ, 12, and Maddie, 6. She currently serves as the counselor at W.S. Harlan Elementary School in Lockhart.