Saving Grace

Single Mom Survives Cancer to Help Others

by Shannon Kelley Gould

Last summer, single mother of two Tami Finseth began feeling tired. Very tired. A lump appeared under her arm; another on her thigh; another under her chin. She’d always been healthy — worked as a mortgage broker, went to the gym, volunteered at her church and her kids’ school — and denied that anything was wrong for as long as she could, but eventually, she realized she knew that something wasn’t right. She had no medical insurance for herself, so she called her kids’ pediatrician, who told her to see a surgeon immediately. The surgeon found more lumps, thought it might be breast cancer, and sent her in for a mammogram. The next day, she was told it wasn’t breast cancer. The following day, the surgeon removed a lymph node. And the following day, her birthday, Tami was diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphoma. The doctors wanted to begin chemo right away, but, because she was without insurance, couldn’t. Tami found herself desperately pleading her case at the Medi-Cal office, which she described as one of the most horrible experiences of her life. Despite the astronomical costs that cancer treatment entails (chemo alone runs about $25,000), applicants are grilled and their assets and bank accounts scrutinized in order to prove need. The process was so stressful and unpleasant, in fact, that Tami began thinking about doing something to help other single parents battling cancer, even before her own treatment had begun.

Once she had Medi-Cal in place and began chemo, Tami knew it was time to tell her son Dakota, who was about to start fifth grade, and daughter Jade, who was going into fourth. The deaths of two of the kids’ classmates’ mothers the previous year were still fresh in their minds, and, though Tami put on a brave face, the kids didn’t want to leave her side.

Her status as a single parent compounded the nightmare: “I didn’t have anyone to break down to, to regroup; you kind of don’t get to do that,” she said. Beyond that, there was no one else there to reassure Jade and Dakota, let alone take them to school, pack their lunches, or help them with homework. She wasn’t able to work, so the three lived off her savings, “which goes pretty quick in this town,” and the support group she’d been referred to was full of couples. “You’re scared enough, but then you go to this support group where it’s all couples, and it’s like you’re ostracized again,” she said. “It hurts even more.” Also, she pointed out, frequently — between work and kids — single parents are simply too stretched to have the time to cultivate a strong support network.

“Being a single parent is really overlooked in society; there’s not a lot of support,” Tami said. “Raising a family alone, every day, you’re depleted.” Add to that the nightmare of cancer, with chemo treatments measured to be so strong as to stop just short of killing you, and it can be devastating.

Tami credited her family, friends, and acquaintances from her church and her children’s school with helping her make it though, but it was a battle. Friends shuttled the kids to school when she was at the hospital for chemo and took them to the hospital after school. She struggled to protect them, saying, “Mommy loves it here, it’s like a spa!” but, she said, she couldn’t fool them. “Even though you have your game-face on, they’re looking in your eyes; they know.”

All the while, a dream was taking form in Tami’s mind, and, shortly after receiving her clean bill of health on April 10, Grace Uncharted was established as a nonprofit to assist single parents battling cancer, to fill the role a spouse might. The organization is just getting off the ground, and is in need of cash donations and volunteers. The YMCA has partnered with Grace Uncharted to provide child care on a sliding payment scale, and Tami is hoping that program directors will step up to donate spots for kids. Prayer quilts and hats are important for those in the battle, while rides to school and help with homework are important for their children. Ultimately, Tami hopes to be in the position to tackle the weightier issues — like medical insurance.

“[This experience] totally changes your perspective,” said Tami. “You reevaluate what’s important. If my walk through this was to make other people’s walks easier, I would do it again.”

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