For a year, Tiffany Spencer, the U.S. Air Force reservist, marathoner and bicyclist, searched for answers. She listened to the doctors’ diagnoses of colon, ovarian, cervical and appendix cancer. She read testimonials and studied medical terminology. She endured 20 rounds of chemotherapy and supplemented her care with natural therapies — Epsom salt baths, coffee enemas, Vitamin C IVs.
Still the tumor in her abdomen grew — eventually reaching 18 pounds.
At night, before going to sleep in the oversized brown armchair in the living room of her Southeast Decatur home, she prayed.
“If not for me, for my children,” Spencer said. “Let them see you through this. Let them understand that when tough times come, we don’t curl up in the fetal position or give up.”
Diagnosed with appendiceal cancer at age 40, the Decatur woman hopes to instill hope, comfort and empowerment to others battling diseases.
“When people hear the ‘c’ word, they think of it as a death sentence. I saw it as an opportunity to glorify God,” Spencer said.
The diagnosis came in October 2016, several months after Spencer, her husband Troy, and children, 17-year-old Truth, 15-year-old Toluwani and 9-year-old Thurgood, moved to Decatur from Tucson, Arizona.
Tiffany Spencer, who can trace her family’s military history back to the Civil War on her father’s side and the Spanish-American War on her mother’s side, had recently completed the physical fitness test mandatory for Air Force personnel when her husband felt a hard spot on her stomach. Initially, she dismissed the abnormality as a side effect of giving birth to three children.
“We had no reason to think anything was wrong. She tore up that PT test. She was awesome. She was running three miles in no time,” said Troy Spencer, who served in the Air Force and currently works at United Launch Alliance.
She scheduled an appointment for a routine check-up. The doctor, unbeknownst to Tiffany Spencer, checked her blood for cancer markers. They came back high.
For the next nine months, oncologists at four hospitals examined Spencer’s scans and debated what type of cancer was growing in her body. After dismissing colon and cervical cancer, doctors settled on ovarian cancer.
“My scan looked like a blob and they couldn’t tell where it was coming from. They did the best they could,” Tiffany Spencer said.
The Department of Veteran’s Affairs sent her to MD Anderson in Houston for surgery. There, the medical staff arrived at a new diagnosis — appendiceal cancer.
Her condition worsened. The tumor grew and fluid filled her abdomen. During three rounds of paracentesis, a combined 7 liters of fluid was removed from Spencer. The oncologist started her on rounds of chemotherapy. She experienced extreme fatigue and neuropathy in her hands — wearing gloves to the grocery store in order to deal with the numbness.
With each chemotherapy treatment, they waited anxiously for the next scan. The tumor continued to grow. Still, they held tight to their faith.
“All those little Bible school and Sunday school lessons I grew up on in the church and memorized, I leaned heavily on them. I never asked why God or why me. I didn’t manipulate or bargain with God. I just held tight to my faith in him,” Tiffany Spencer said.
Troy and Tiffany Spencer remained in Houston from July 2017 to early 2018, leaving briefly when Hurricane Harvey struck the city in August. After a scan revealed the tumor had grown from 18 by 20 centimeters to 20 by 25 centimeters, they decided to seek treatment elsewhere.
“I told the doctor I felt the tumor growing. After the CT, he told me it grew from 18 to 20. I thought, that’s not too bad, but I felt something was wrong, so I asked to read the scan and saw he only gave me one set of the numbers. I didn’t get angry, I just felt I had to go somewhere else,” Tiffany Spencer said. “That taught me the importance of educating myself and reading my own medical records.”
On Memorial Day weekend, with no appointment scheduled and believing the Mayo Clinic would not accept their insurance, Troy and Tiffany Spencer, with Truth, Toluwani and Thurgood in tow, set off for Phoenix.
The Spencers described their awareness of the Mayo Clinic and the events in Phoenix as God-driven.
“Some good friends of ours, who are survivors of prostate and breast cancer, attended a symposium in Phoenix. They heard Dr. Nabil Wasif speak. He is a surgeon and specializes in appendiceal cancer. They called me and told me I needed to get out there,” Tiffany Spencer said.
Before leaving Decatur, she researched the insurances accepted by the Mayo Clinic. Hers was not one. If necessary, she decided, she would pay out of pocket. In Phoenix, when she called to schedule an appointment, the hospital told her she would have to wait a month.
“They said they would put me on a waiting list. Not even 20 minutes later, I got a phone call saying they could get me in the following Tuesday for a consultation with a surgeon. I said that I wanted to request Dr. Wasif. They told me that was who they planned on putting me with anyway. On top of that, they said they now accepted my insurance,” Spencer said.
The Sunday before her appointment, Tiffany Spencer arrived at the Mayo Clinic’s ER. The pain caused by the tumor, which, due to the size, rested on the nerves in her thighs, was unbearable. The next day, Wasif stopped by her room.
“I’m not allowing you to leave the state of Arizona until this tumor is removed,” Wasif told her.
Two days later, Wasif removed the 18-pound tumor.
“Some people know God as Jehovah Jirah, the provider. Some know him as Jehovah Shammah, God is with us. I know God as those too, but the main one I know him as is Jehovah Rapha, my healer,” Tiffany Spencer said.
This week, Tiffany Spencer received the results from her latest blood work. Her colon cancer markers are in the normal range and she received the all clear to start running and cycling again.
“I have learned from my mother to always have faith in God, no matter what, to thank God every day and to always rejoice in the Lord, even in times of trouble,” Truth Spencer said.
“She taught me that God always has your back, even when you get in trouble and get a spanking,” Thurgood Spencer said.
For individuals battling a disease, Tiffany Spencer stressed the importance of educating yourself, keeping a good attitude and holding strong to your faith.
“When one doctor says no, it’s OK to get a second or third opinion if need be. It’s OK to ask questions. If your gut is telling you to do something, do it,” she said. “Our former president Barack Obama wrote a book called ‘The Audacity of Hope.’ Sometimes when you are dealing with cancer, it may seem hopeless. I realized early on that if this cancer was bold, I, too, had to be bold in my faith.”
While the Spencers faced difficult challenges the past two years, the journey strengthened their faith in God and appreciation for the community. They found support in their neighbors and members of Alpha Seventh-Day Adventist Church and Decatur Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
“The diagnosis of cancer was a tough blow. We had just moved here and didn’t know anyone. But this community really stepped up. They mowed our lawn and took care of our kids. It speaks to the type of people that are here in Decatur. We were new and they didn’t have to help us out, but they did. We truly feel blessed,” Troy Spencer said.