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For Seminole couple, life lessons arise from cancer's darkest days

Once her darkest hours had passed, Largo High School teacher Tamara Evansen-Waggoner felt moved to write a letter about the man she loved, the man who saved her life.

She began with the part that set the storm clouds into motion, the discovery that brought the two closer together when it would tear many others apart.

"Shortly after my 39th birthday, I was given the news that I have Stage 3 breast cancer," Tamara began. She needed to receive the most severe type of chemotherapy.

"Others haven't survived this form of treatment," she wrote.

But Brian Waggoner was there.

She had known him for less than a year when the diagnosis came, and they had just gotten engaged.

He had three children from his first marriage. She had two. He had just been laid off. Life was throwing its worst at them.

But they had each other.

Stubborn, Tamara first refused to get a lump checked by a second doctor when the first told her she was in the clear. Brian nagged her, even tried to schedule an appointment, until she caved. She went almost to prove him wrong.

"I refused to believe it was a lump. … I was in denial," she wrote. "If I waited two years for my first official mammogram, it would have spread throughout my body and may have been too late."

That, Tamara said, was the first time that Brian had saved her.

• • •

Brian, 37, ditched a date so he could meet Tamara for the first time at a Memorial Day party in 2008. She had a megawatt smile and one of those laughs you can't forget.

At the party, Tamara almost ditched Brian. She was a die-hard Steeler from Pittsburgh. Brian, from Cleveland, lived and breathed Browns. But they ended up talking until 4 a.m. He called her the next day at noon.

"We've been inseparable ever since," said Tamara, 39.

The first round of chemotherapy came on the first day of the schoolteacher's summer in 2009. Already weakened by two lumpectomies, she began the fight. So did Brian.

Early on in her treatment, when she knew things would only go from bad to worse, she told him he could go.

"If you're going to leave, leave now," she said. "I would totally understand."

Brian's oldest daughter, Ashley Waggoner, 16, never doubted his decision.

"I didn't think anything about it. It's just the kind of person he is. I knew he wasn't going anywhere, no matter what," Ashley said.

When Tamara's hair began falling out, he shaved her head. "If I had a sexy head like hers, I'd be bald all the time," he said.

He took Tamara's girls, Abigail, 5, and Jacqueline Evansen, 8, to school in the mornings and picked them up in the afternoons.

During the brighter moments while in treatment, Tamara could be her spry self. With the help of her children, she styled her hair, which had started to regrow.

"As a public school teacher, how often do you get to have a pink Mohawk?" she asked.

But in a dark moment, an exhausted Tamara gave up. She said she was quitting chemo.

Brian saved her again.

"You promised your little girls, and me, that you're not going to die. Look at your kids, all our kids, in the eye and say you're giving up."

So she endured another round of treatment.

• • •

By the time she came back to teach last September, Tamara was optimistic, but still weak.

Brian took her to school some days and stayed. "He has helped me plan lessons, takes me to and picks me up from trainings, and helps me grade papers when I am too sick," Tamara wrote.

Tamara and Brian were married in November. Just before the wedding, Tamara sent her letter to the Pinellas County School Board.

On Jan. 20, Brian was awarded the Superintendent's Unsung Hero Award.

For Seminole couple, life lessons arise from cancer's darkest days 02/06/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 12, 2010 5:54pm]
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