After a serious health scare earlier this year, CTV news anchor Tamara Taggart has rallied back with a whole new perspective on life
On December 31, 2011, Tamara Taggart rang in the New Year the same way as most everyone else, hoping for a happy and healthy 2012.
Little did she know that just three days later she’d be on the verge of death.
At first, Tuesday, January 3, seemed a day like any other. The CTV news anchor was eager to return to work after a 10-day Christmas vacation, especially because the day marked the one-year anniversary of her promotion to anchor of CTV News at Six, a post the former weathercaster shares with colleague Mike Killeen. The only downer? She had a vicious headache.
Though a nuisance, she didn’t think it was a cause for concern.
“I’ve been in a few car accidents, so I’m used to getting headaches. I did all the usual things to get rid of it: I drank more coffee, I took Advil, I even got a shoulder massage. Nothing helped,” Taggart confides over a late-summer lunch at Coco et Olive eatery on Main Street.
“Under normal circumstances, I would have stayed home, but I wanted to be there for our anniversary.”
Putting mind over matter, she gamely carried on with her day. It was only when she saw that “even with full TV makeup on, I still looked like a ghost,” that she began to suspect this head-pounder was way beyond the norm.
Tamara Taggart's Health Takes a Turn for the Worst
Shortly before she was to take her seat at the anchor desk, she excused herself to go to the restroom, telling Killeen that she was feeling nauseated.
Concerned, he asked, “Should I call Dr. Rhonda [Low, CTV’s on-air medical expert]?”
If she’d had any clue what would happen next, Taggart would have readily agreed. Instead, the next thing she remembers is coming to on the cold restroom floor. Realizing she had fainted, she called for Dr. Low, who bundled her into a cab for home. The doctor suspected, as did Taggart, that she was merely suffering from a severe migraine.
At her East Vancouver home, which she shares with husband Dave Genn and their three young children, Taggart crawled into bed, where she would remain for the next 36 hours, attempting to sleep away the pain. Fortunately, she was able to sidestep her mothering duties for a while, enlisting the help of her family to take care of the rambunctious trio of tots, all under the age of six.
Tamara and her son Beckett (Image:
By Thursday morning, the broadcaster, whose Type-A personality isn’t suited to being bedridden, decided to get up.
“I brought my phone with me into the washroom, just in case,” she says, hoping to avoid a repeat of the incident a few days prior. She would not be so lucky. Again, she fainted, and again she awoke on the floor. This time, Genn grew alarmed, convinced his wife of six years was suffering from more than just a migraine.
“There’s something’s seriously wrong,” he said, as he reached for the phone to dial 911.
When paramedics arrived, they found Taggart’s blood pressure alarmingly low, her heart rate dangerously high, and strapped her onto a stretcher for Vancouver General Hospital. Her last thought as she was carted into the ambulance was fear that her kids would be traumatized by the sight of their mother strapped onto a stretcher.
“Turns out, the girls were busy eating breakfast and Beckett [her five-year-old son] barely noticed, he was so fascinated by the fire truck and ambulance sirens,” she says wryly.
At the hospital, Taggart remembers an ER doctor telling her, “You have no blood in your body” and that she needed an immediate transfusion. Doctors concluded she was bleeding internally — but from where?
In fact, Taggart had been anemic for the past year, and had been receiving regular IV iron infusions to treat low hemoglobin levels. With this in mind, doctors ordered an endoscopy. When the endoscopy showed nothing amiss, a colonoscopy was scheduled for the next morning that would hopefully reveal the source of the bleeding.
“That night,” Taggart remarks, “went down as the worst of my life. I was lying there, sick, weak, not having eaten for days, not knowing what was wrong with me, and on top of it all, having to drink a laxative that tasted like salty chalk.”
When the colonoscopy revealed nothing out of the ordinary, doctors focused on the small intestine, the only area that couldn’t be reached by either of the procedures Taggart had just undergone. Taggart underwent a CT scan, and the results were shocking: She had a 10-centimetre tumour in her small intestine, a massive growth that had ruptured surrounding veins.
Without immediate surgery, she would have died. As she was wheeled into the operating room, her mother and husband at her side, she wondered if she would survive the surgery.
“It was just so surreal, I kept waiting for people to yell ‘cut!’” she recalls, “I felt like I was in a scene out of Grey’s Anatomy.”
Dealing with a Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumour (GIST)
Fortunately, surgery was successful, and Taggart spent the next nine days recuperating in hospital. Pathology tests showed that Taggart had a Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumour (GIST), a rare condition that afflicts approximately 15 out of every one million people, usually seniors.
Gastrointestinal stromal tumours, according to Dr. Charles Blanke, are a relatively rare type of cancer found in the digestive system, most often in the wall of the stomach. The cause of GIST is unknown, but those with some genetic disorders, including one called neurofibromatosis, are at increased risk of developing the disease. Advanced GISTs do not respond at all to standard chemotherapy and used to be uniformly fatal. However, targeted biologic therapies are extraordinarily successful in patients with GIST, halting cancer growth for years in the majority, and in some for more than a decade.
The big question on Taggart’s mind was: “Is it cancer?” The short answer, she says, is yes.
“All tumours are cancer,” she explains. “It’s just a matter of whether they’re benign or malignant.”
This type of cancer, however, doesn’t play by the usual rules. Unlike other forms of the illness, GISTs cannot always be neatly classified as benign or malignant. They are capable of metastasizing, however, and — equally worrisome — they are immune to the usual cancer interventions of chemotherapy and radiation.
During Taggart’s three months’ leave from CTV, she put her journalistic skills to work off camera, seeking out answers from experts on this puzzling condition. She was referred to Vancouver oncologist Dr. Charles Blanke, who informed her matter of factly, “Fourteen years ago you would have died.”
Fortunately, in 2002, a medication called Gleevec was found to significantly improve the prognosis of patients with GIST. The bad news: Taggart’s GIST was located in the small intestine, which has a greater recurrence rate than if it had been located elsewhere in the gastrointestinal tract.
She had other questions for Dr. Blanke, as well: “Is this going to be what kills me?” she asked.
“Not if I can help it,” he replied, before hedging: “In the short term, no. In the long term, I can’t definitively say.”
To reduce and hopefully eliminate the chance of recurrence, Taggart must take a daily course of medication for the next three years, possibly longer, and submit to ongoing CT scans. “What do I tell people?” she inquired further. “Do I have cancer? Do I not have cancer?”
Dr. Blanke answered, “You tell them, ‘I had a tumour that was removed to prevent it from spreading and now I’m taking medication to help prevent it from coming back.’ End of story.”
A New Lease on Life for Taggart
After a three-month hiatus, a healthy-looking Taggart is back in front of the camera (Image: Kyrani Kanavaros)
As traumatic as the experience has been, and as reluctant as she’s been to tell her story in public, Taggart admits there have been some positives. Like others who have had a brush with death, Taggart says she has been changed “in every way, shape and form.” For starters, she has a renewed appreciation for life, which has only reinforced her joys in motherhood.
“I savour every moment with the kids. I always did, but now I’m hyperaware of every moment. And I was always clear about what’s important to me, who’s important to me, but it’s crystal clear now. Crystal clear. I don’t care what people say or think about me anymore. I feel more grounded, more mature, wiser.”
She is also learning not to sweat the small stuff. “I don’t get worked up about little things like I used to. Things that used to make me crazy, I stop and think, ‘Tamara, what are you doing? It doesn’t matter.’ ”
As she explains, her experience really brought home the realization that “everyone is going through something, even if it isn’t always immediately apparent.”
Taggart herself, looking pink-cheeked and healthy, is a case in point. “I was always an empathetic person, but now I’m even more so,” she adds. “When I walk into that cancer agency, I just want to fix everyone.”
It’s a feeling that also spills over to her work.
“I feel more emotional when I’m covering stories about people with hardships,” she says. “When I report the news, and it’s usually bad, I always think, ‘Why can’t we just be nicer to each other?’ I look at these people who do horrible things to others and I just shake my head and think, ‘I know something you don’t: Life is precious.’ ”
Ultimately, the word that Taggart says best describes what she’s been through is “grateful.”
“I’m forever grateful to the people who saved my life,” she says. “It started with my husband, then the paramedics, and the ER doctor, the head doctor, the surgeon . . . and I’ll never forget the wonderful nurses who took care of me. They helped me get strong again so I could get home to my family.”