Couple diagnosed with cancer just two months apart
“To have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”
Many couples choose to share these special words, or vows, on their wedding day.
Irondale residents Johnnie and Tammy Spivey said these special words to each other when they married on May 5, 1981.
“Let me tell you, we had a struggle in our marriage,” said Tammy. “We married very young. When we said for richer or poorer, that’s what we went through. We had two kids. We always said, ‘No matter what, ’till death do us part.’”
The couple was blindsided when Johnnie was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer in 2006. As with any serious event such as cancer, that diagnosis stopped their lives.
But that wasn’t the only complication for the couple; their story goes much deeper.
The couple celebrated their 25th anniversary on the day Johnnie got a chemotherapy port inserted to help with his treatments.
Little did Tammy know she, too, would also be diagnosed with cancer just two months later.
Tammy had found a lump in her breast a year earlier, but a mammogram revealed nothing. A year later, she returned to her doctor, who looked at the new mammogram results and could not figure out why they did not see anything. Tammy was sent to another facility where she had an ultrasound. A biopsy was scheduled.
Just a month before, they had received Johnnie’s cancer diagnosis.
“I just put myself on the back burner,” said Tammy. “I had had this lump for a year, and nothing had been done about it.”
When her biopsy results came back, she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer.
She was 41 years old.
Tammy had a lumpectomy, a surgery to remove the cancer from her breast. A month later, she received chemotherapy treatments once every three weeks for six cycles. Afterward, Tammy had to wait 30 days before starting 36 treatments of radiation.
The couples had been consecutively diagnosed with cancer and wanted to be each other’s caregivers.
One of the toughest things the couple had to do was call Johnnie’s oncologist to say Tammy would also need to seek treatment from him.
“Whenever I was going through this with Johnnie and then found out I was going to have to do it for myself, I tried to find peace with the situation,” said Tammy. “We made jokes to get through it. When we first talked to the doctor — and he understood our sense of humor — he said, ‘We don’t do family [treatment] plans here.’”
Johnnie was ahead of Tammy by two chemo treatments when she first started. He went on the opposite week of her each month.
Even though Tammy struggled with severe sickness the week after she received treatment, she continued to work throughout her chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
The couple’s children, Nikki and Kenny, along with other family members and friends, helped them.
Tammy worked up until Johnnie’s cancer spread. At that point, she took a leave of absence for about six weeks.
Johnnie received chemotherapy but did not receive radiation until the cancer spread to his brain. He had lost some of his hearing, so he underwent surgery to help reduce the tumor and improve it.
Johnnie battled cancer for one year and two weeks. He died on April 28, 2007, only a week before the couple would have celebrated their 26th wedding anniversary.
People asked Tammy how she and Johnnie battled cancer at the same time. Even their son and daughter could not comprehend how their parents could have both had cancer.
What Tammy worried about the most was not necessarily her cancer diagnosis but not being able to care for Johnnie.
“The only way you can handle anything like this is believing in God and knowing and believing he has a hold of every situation we go through,” she said.
Tammy said she knows God doesn’t give her or anyone “more than we can ever handle.”
“Sometimes we think we can’t handle this, but we do,” she said. “He didn’t promise us there would not be trials and troubles here on earth, but he gets us through it every time.”
Tammy said she knew God had a plan when she and Johnnie endured cancer together.
“God had control of the situation,” she said. “He knew we needed to see what the other person was going through so we could get through it together.”
She continued, “Sometimes we don’t understand why one spouse goes quicker than the other, but I know there was a reason God kept me here, and I’m still serving that purpose of whatever God has in store for me.”
Tammy said God helped her to truly understand what her best friend was going through when she, too, was diagnosed with cancer.
“God knew just what we needed,” she said. “We both struggled, but we did it together.”
There were days when it didn’t seem they would make it. But no matter what, they did not give up fighting.
“I said, ‘I’m stronger, and I’m going to fight this battle as long as God helps me fight this battle,’” said Tammy. “And don’t stop fighting. Ever.”
She said people have to look at the big picture. They have to research to figure out what can be done to make one’s life last longer.
It was after Johnnie’s death that Tammy realized she never wanted her kids to be forced to go through cancer again.
“I realized I had to do everything I could to be the healthiest I could be,” she said.
With her son and daughter — and six grandchildren ranging in age from 14 to 22 — she knew she had to celebrate her blessings and be present for all their birthdays, graduations, weddings and more.
Tammy changed her eating habits, exercised more and created a healthier, all-natural lifestyle for herself.
“If you focus on getting the best nutrition possible, giving up the bad things (like sugar), things you do not need in your life, that’s the first step,” she said. “The healthier life you live, the longer you’re going to live.”
Terre Du Lac resident Debbie Guggenberger brought nutritional information to Tammy. The two were best friends.
“She brought all this information to me and helped me understand what I needed to do to know what I needed to lead a healthy lifestyle,” said Tammy. “Debbie was a very special lady. She was the one who put me on this path to a healthier life.”
Sadly, Debbie died on Oct. 23, 2022.
Although Tammy’s diagnosis and cancer treatment lasted for about a year, she said people who have battled cancer actually battle it for the rest of their lives.
“Every little thing you fear in your life, you always think the cancer has returned,” she said. “It’s important for a person who has had cancer, or even a family member of that person, to understand that the fear is always in the back of their mind. It’s important to keep that worry at bay.”
Regardless of this fear, Tammy said anyone who “has the cancer battle in front of them has to always think and remain positive. You can’t think negative. No matter what the situation is with your treatment and progress, if you don’t stay positive through that, then you’re not allowing your body to absorb the treatment that you’re receiving.”
She added that “having a strong faith in God and knowing that he has control of the situation, and leaning on him and your family for support, will get you through anything.”
Tammy is grateful for all the support she and Johnnie received during their experience with cancer. She recalled how their children and many others helped, including a special friend who showed up one day to clean the couple’s house. That friend knew Tammy would object to her asking to clean the couple’s home, so the friend told Tammy to “sit down and let me do what I want to do to help you.”
“That was so special,” said Tammy. “It was such a thoughtful thing for her to do, and I didn’t realize how much I needed that.”
The couple’s pastor also visited and prayed with the couple each week. To this day, Tammy still remembers her pastor’s comforting words from Matthew 18: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them.”
Another verse Tammy uses for encouragement is Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Despite all of the struggles she’s been through, Tammy did not realize God already had a new plan in motion for her life.
Johnnie and Tammy shared a lifelong best friend, Dennis Armon.
“Dennis has been one of my biggest supporters,” she said, “not just with me and my struggles but with my kids and grandkids.”
In 2008, Dennis asked Tammy to marry him.
When they married, Tammy had four grandchildren. Now, the couple have six grandchildren.
“Dennis joined our family and has been one of our biggest supporters and strengthens our family in many ways,” she said.
Tammy and Dennis have shared many wonderful years of friendship but also 15 years of marriage.
“Family is what keeps me going,” she said, “and we can’t wait to have great grandbabies.”
Their family includes daughter Nikki and her children Makenzie, Morgan and Wyatt, and son Kenny and wife Jessica and their children Kaitlin, Kylie and Kaden.
Pam Clifton is a contributing writer for the Daily Journal.