Finishing the walk - Woman’s 22-year fight to conquer cancer ends

Photo/Courtesy - Tamarra Christian, center, poses for a photo with her best friends Emily Mason and Rachel Fite. With Rhonda Moon and Christian's mother Wanda Smith, the women treked 60 miles in the Susan Komen 3-Day walk. Christian died the next week.

By Carolyn Cole
Published on November 22, 2008

Mustang’s Tamarra Ann Christian gave high fives to all of the Susan G. Komen Three-Day Breast Cancer Walk volunteers after she crossed the last 400 feet of 60-mile event with a doctor, her mother and three best friends at her side.

Three and a half years of fighting cancer left Christian’s immune system weakened and damaged the nerve endings in her hands and feet so each slap sent ripples of pain through her body.

Usually, she said this summer, her friends took the high-fives for her to protect her. She called it “heartbreaking.”

“At the very end ... she put her hands up and touched everyone of them who wanted to touch her hand,” her friend Emily Mason said.

Her “Marra Ann’s Twice Flight” teammates knew Christian’s heart was set on finishing the walk, even though doctors red carded her early on, forcing to her ride through most of it in a wheelchair. Her mother Wanda Smith said none of them imagined Christian’s battle against cancer would end three days later.

“It was wonderful,” Smith said. “I got to sleep next to her; I got to spend time with her. I think she knew it all along ... she was really sick.”

Weeks after Christian’s 12th birthday, she faced her first fight with cancer — an undifferentiated carcinoma. Doctors removed one of her glands in her neck, and each chemotherapy treatment would leave her so sick, she had to be hospitalized. Radiation left her with a curved spine and damaged her thyroids, and her right shoulder was smaller than her left.

“We were very, very lucky,” Smith said. “We did, we had a miracle.”

Almost 22 years to the day from the first diagnosis, Christian was going to nursing school and working part time to help raise her three children with her new love John Dreiske. She was working through her psychology clinicals at an area hospital when suddenly she couldn’t breathe. She was taken to the emergency room where doctors learned her right lung had collapsed, and she had two liters of fluid in her lungs. Doctors ran tests and found the tumor.

The cancer started out in her breast and had already spread to her liver, ovaries and bones. Doctors gave her a grim prognosis — she needed aggressive chemotherapy to fight back against the cancer, but they could not cure her.

Smith said her daughter was terrified, but she wouldn’t show it. This summer, Christian said she fought on because she wanted to live long enough so her son Hunter, who is now almost 4 years old, could remember her.

Even when Christian was sick and weak, Smith said her daughter would find draw on an inner strength to take Hunter to the zoo, chase him at the playground or laze around and watch movies.

“He was the love of her life,” Smith said.

When Christian learned of her diagnosis, she started searching for something she could do to support breast cancer research that could extend her life and help other patients. She found the 60-mile, Three-Day Breast Cancer Walk, and Smith said she never doubted her daughter would cross the finish line. The women walked in two earlier three-day events — their first year it was Smith who was sidelined with aching muscles and bleeding blisters, waiting for her daughter to cross the finish line in Dallas.

In 2007, mother and daughter finished the walk side-by-side in Tampa, Fla. despite blistering temperatures and the threat of heat stroke. They made plans to take on the Dallas-Fort Worth event in 2008, and their excitement grew when they recruited their close friends Rachel Fite, Emily Mason and Rhonda Moon to create a team.

“She wasn’t doubting that she was going to this year,” Smith said.

But Christian’s cancer was unrelenting. Doctors had to keep changing and strengthening her chemotherapy regimen to push back the tumors, but Smith said even though her daughter grew sicker with her treatments, the cancer continued to grow. It took a toll on her other organs, and her liver became so enlarged that Christian’s abdomen swelled so she appeared pregnant. Even as the added pressure and built up fluids made her even more nauseated, she joked with her friends, naming her bulge “baby Cletus.”

Smith said she started having her own doubts for this year’s walk on Halloween when the friends went shopping for supplies. After about a half hour, she said her daughter was exhausted.

On Nov. 6, Mason said Christian told her she was to weak for the walk and resigned herself to following her team’s progress from the family car. Mason called the walk’s organizers and got special permission for the team to push Christian in a wheelchair.

That day, Christian worked a full shift at Integris Canadian Valley Regional Hospital before driving to Dallas. Smith said no matter how bad her daughter felt, she would still push herself to go to work.

As the walk opened Nov. 7 in Dallas, Christian and her team were among more than 3,000 walkers who filled the streets. Smith said she was overwhelmed by the crowd of walkers, expanding off toward the horizon ahead of her and behind her.

“We walked 16 miles the first day with her, and you think how sick she was,” Smith said. “That was amazing for her.”

On Nov. 8, Christian and her friend Rachel Fite, who is about 2 months pregnant, went for nausea bags at the medic tent. The doctors red tagged Christian, barring her from walking any further.

“She was still smiling, and we were cutting up with the medical people,” Fite said.

After Christian was sick, she told the doctors she was ready to walk, but they weren’t convinced.

“She would say, ‘I feel better. I’m ready to go now,’” Fite said.

In a way, Smith said she was thankful for Fite’s morning sickness, because otherwise her daughter would have pushed them all to keep walking, especially because she couldn’t continue.

“She got to hang out with her, and that wouldn’t have happened,” Smith said. “She would have kind of been by herself.”

For the next two days, the friends took turns pushing Christian in a wheelchair most of the remaining 44 miles. Christian insisted on walking up hill because she didn’t want to be a burden on her friends, her mother said. When they reached a flat surface, she allowed them to continue pushing her.

All along the route, Smith said the friends met many people who wanted to talk with Christian and share their stories.

“It’s inspiring to hear the stories of why they are there,” Smith said.

As the walk neared its final miles, Moon said their fatigue was swept away by excitement and adrenaline. A doctor offered to walk the last 400 feet with Christian so she could stride across the finish lime.

“He was bawling like a baby,” Moon said. “She kept saying, ‘Thank you,’ and he said, ‘no, it’s my honor to walk with you.”’

“He said, ‘You are my hero,’” Mason added.

In the closing ceremony, the friends were swept up in the sea of women wearing pink and white shirts.
Mason said the walkers started taking off their stinky, sweaty sneakers and holding them above their heads, like a concert audience holds up lit lighters. She said they were overwhelmed by a sense of accomplishment of the 60 miles they had walked together.

“I couldn’t have asked for more,” Mason said.

The tiredness didn’t set in until the friends loaded into the car to head home. They took turns behind the wheel, even Christian, finally getting home in the wee hours of the morning Nov. 10.

A few hours later Christian went to the Canadian Valley emergency room, and her coworkers admitted her. Smith said she knew her daughter was sick when her stepfather asked her how she was feeling and she wouldn’t answer because she had vowed to never lie to him.

Smith said Christian’s coworkers filled the hospital room, sharing stories with the family and making sure their friend was as comfortable as possible.

“The love that was in that room was something I had never seen before — the people coming in, the people crying,” she said.

On Nov. 12, her co-workers presented Christian with the Guardian Angel award, one of the highest nursing honors for their company. A few hours later, she took her last breaths.

While her family feels Christian’s absence deeply, Smith said she knew her daughter would want them to celebrate her life and to care for each other the way she always looked after them.

Mason said the friends have received word from the Komen Foundation that they will never forget Christian’s fight either. Her photo and story will be displayed in the survivor’s tent at all 2009 three-day walks across the country.

As for “Marra Ann’s Twice Flight” team, their efforts are far from over. Smith said they plan to return to the Dallas-Fort Worth walk next year and trot those 60-miles in Christian’s memory.

Christian is survived by her partner John Dreiske; her children Hunter, Cameron and Michaela; her parents Wanda and Eddie Smith and Michael and Beverly Nitzel as well as a large extended family.

I'm so honored...

My name is Jennifer and I am one of Tamarra's neighbors. I haven't known her very long, but I have been touched so deeply by her friendship and completely amazing personality. I wish I would of known her better and longer so I would have the fun memories like all her other friends and family. I will never forget the memories I do have. I will always remember her never-ending smile and laughter. I think of her often and will always remember her. I would love to join the team and walk next year... it would be my honor.


Thank you for writing this article to let everyone know how amazing Tamarra was. I have known her for 5 years and went to nursing school with her. She was truly amazing and I am blessed to have been her friend. She never complained to anyone about herself, she was always willing to help anyone in need. She by far was the most giving person I have ever known. Thanks again.


What a great article. Thank you for taking the time to write about Tamarra. She would be so proud. Thanks again, EMily Mason

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