“Your talents and life experiences can really help other people, but it does take time and effort, although it is completely worth it!” – Tarah Warren

“You’ve got cancer.” Words we hope to never hear in life. And if we must be the receivers of that dreaded sentence, we hope it isn’t until we’re well into our 7th or 8th decade, having lived a full life.

Some of us our lucky and that hope comes true. We are able to live a full, long, healthy life. For others, those unwelcome words come way too early; way before they’re ready.

Tarah Warren heard those formidable words in her mid-twenties. Rather than accepting the terms as given, she took on the challenge. While recovering in the hospital and during her chemo treatments, Tarah spent her time connecting with and comforting her fellow cancer warriors. And from this experience, Tenaciously Teal was born.

Tarah is now in remission and spends her days supporting and empowering fellow cancer warriors who are fighting their own battle.

Me: What inspired you to found Tenaciously Teal?  Where did the name come from?

Tarah: Teal is the Ovarian Cancer Awareness color, and I was diagnosed with Stage IV Ovarian Cancer in December of 2012.  The meaning of the word tenacious is “not easily letting go or giving up,” and that was something I determined to do, even when faced with a challenging diagnosis. I wasn’t going to give up without a fight!!

After my hysterectomy I spent a week in the hospital and walked the halls day after day to regain my strength.  I was startled upon noticing room after room housing patients also fighting a cancer battle, but the difference for some patients were they were alone. There were no visitors, flowers, or cards with get well wishes and this didn’t seem right. I had several cards and flowers, so I wanted to share the love, and began giving away my flower arrangements. This is where the heart ofTenaciously Teal began

Tenaciously Teal evolved over time, and was originally just the name of my blog where I wrote about life, God, and cancer. Part of the feature on my blog became stories of others I saw fighting similar battles, and my endeavor to spread light, love, and joy in the often cold chemo rooms.  I started thinking about what more I could do to help those who were alone or just sad, and so I began putting together care packs with things I was using to fight cancer and giving them out each time I went to chemo. I had a lot of chemo, 40 infusions, and I found each time there were many who could use a care pack. Six months into my treatment I began bringing enough Care Packs for every patient in the chemo room (35-40) and the momentum has just kept growing.  Today, Tenaciously Teal serves 9 treatment centers in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, OK, with monthly Care Pack deliveries. We just show up and spread some love and light by giving everyone a Cancer Care Pack and providing encouragement and advice!

Me: You were diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer at an early age. For those of us who have never faced a diagnosis like this, is there a way to describe a revelation like that?

Tarah: It’s hard to conceptualize the feeling that consumes you when you hear those words, “you have cancer,” and even harder to articulate the concern and worry that seemingly overtakes you when you learn your cancer is very advanced. It was never an easy fight, but from the moment I learned I had cancer that is what I determined to do, fight! I wasn’t going to give up, and I wasn’t going to be a person who let the fear, doubt, and worry consume me. I wanted to live life and appreciate the time I was given. Life is a gift, and if you believe that cancer can also be a gift, because it allows you to appreciate life even that much more. I referred to revelations like these as “cancer silver linings.” Everything in life is made up of good and bad, which holds true for a cancer journey. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of bad with cancer, but if you remain thankful for what you have and cling to the good of this world there are blessings wrapped up in all the crazy.

Me: As you were fighting cancer and enduring chemo treatments, did you have any secret weapons?

Tarah: A lot of what we put in the Cancer Care Packs were in my cancer fighting arsenal. I always had chapstick and lotion on hand for the dehydrating effects of chemo. Gatorade was also a go to, because some chemos make water have a metal taste and hydration is important. I also always ensured I had a decent breakfast before each treatment – steel cut oats and fruit were a favorite of mine. Having a somewhat hearty breakfast seemed to reduce some of the nausea after chemo.

I also couldn’t have made it without listening to scripture and worship music. The chemo made my eyes burn terribly, so for several days I wore sun glasses around the house even at night, and I couldn’t watch TV or be on the computer.  Those were some dark moments, and all I could do was listen, so the music and scripture encouraged me. Oh, and I got a lot of praying done during my chemo regiment.  Chemo makes you tired, so people believe that you sleep all the time, but chemo actually causes insomnia despite your body being exhausted. I spent many hours in prayer at night for others, which was good for me. It kept the focus off of what I was going through and on others who were also fighting battles; divorce, jail, kids, heartache, life.  My mom has always said “everyone has something they’re fighting.”

Me: Once you were in recovery, the second you were able to talk, you shared the flowers people sent you with fellow hospital patients. What inspired you to be so generous?

Tarah: It just hurt my heart to see my fellow fighters alone. In addition, I am a social worker and I’ve worked for child welfare for 9 years. To be honest some of the people I saw on the hospital’s cancer floor looked like my child welfare clients; poverty-stricken and destitute. I thought of my clients who struggle just to put food on the table each month, and I couldn’t imagine the devastation a cancer diagnosis would add. The flowers weren’t much at the time, but they let them know someone cared about what they were going through.

Me: Has giving back always been a part of your life? Or something that developed later?

Tarah: I have always had a heart for people, and so has my family. I come from long line of pastors, and although I hated being a pastor’s kid growing up (and for many years the church overall), one thing that always resonated with me was helping people. My parents have big hearts and were always giving. Our holidays were spent with people in the church who had no family or anywhere to go, and we were always helping someone in some way however they needed it.

In addition, my grandfather pastored in Seattle for many years, and during that time he started a homeless ministry where he and several members of his church would feed the homeless in downtown Seattle every Sunday. It started simple with sack lunches, but eventually they began feeding over 500 every Sunday. I was honored to witness that a few times in my life. Including one Sunday where my grandfather gave his pants and shoes to a man in need.

Me: As you were going through chemo, you started bringing care packages for your fellow chemo warriors. What are some of the things you would include in these care packages?

Gatorade – Tastes good and keeps cancer fighters hydrated

Lotion – Chemo causes dry irritated skin and lotion can provide relief

Chapstick – The majority of cancer patients report having dry sore lips after chemo

Fuzzy socks – Chemo rooms are kept cold to reduce spread of infection

Blanket – Everyone needs a blanket to cozy up with

Journal – Great for therapeutic relief or to jot down medical notes/ symptoms for the doctor

Kleenex – A cancer journey is emotional, but some drugs can also cause nose bleeds

Green Tea – Great detoxifier

Hand Sanitizer – Chemo causes a reduced white blood cell count, so clean hands can reduce the spread of viruses that patients are susceptible to.

Word Search Patients can spend up to 8 hours in chemo chairs, so this is something fun to do and keeps the brain active

Protein Bar -A well-balanced protein bar can help patients feel better and stronger

Me: What is one of the most surprising things you’ve learned through this experience? What about the most rewarding?

Tarah: I think the reward comes from seeing how much the care packs impact not only the patient, but Oncology Nurses, doctors, and others in the chemo room. I think that is also the most surprising thing. Every time we have a new volunteer passing out care packs I always hear how astounded they are by the impact made through the simplicity of the care packs.  Generally, volunteers are surprised by how much it means to someone when they receive a care pack. Cancer fighters are elated to see it is filled with things they can use, and appreciate that there’s an organization who genuinely cares about their fight!

Me: As someone is battling cancer or receiving chemo treatments, what are some of their greatest needs? What are ways people can help support loved ones going through this experience?

Tarah: People contact me often asking what they can do for a loved one who was just diagnosed. My first suggestion is to request a care pack through our website that we can mail to the cancer fighter from them, but my second suggestion is to be a good listener! As humans we have this innate desire to fix the problem, which isn’t a bad thing. However, it does become bothersome when the desire fix comes in the form of unwelcomed advice. If the words, “you just need to do ____” start to form in your head stop it, because that’s probably not just what they need to do or maybe they already are doing that and it’s not working. A cancer journey is different for everyone, but for everyone it is an emotional one. Be quick to lend an ear and less hasty in lending advice.

Finally, just do something. Don’t shy away from your friends or avoid the situation. It is hard for everyone to face, but that’s what you must do, face it, because the patients doesn’t have a choice. Furthermore, it’s hard for people to ask for help so don’t wait on your loved one to tell you when they need a meal or their house cleaned. The friends that helped me the most were the ones that just showed up and met a need with a giving heart!

Me: Since your early days of delivering as few as five care packages per chemo treatment, your work through Tenaciously Teal has grown quite significantly. What are some recent milestones you are most proud of?

Tarah: Wow, good question! I am taken back by what has come from a few simple acts of kindness. I think our expansion to serving Tulsa, OK, monthly, which is two hours away from our headquarters, was significant, and throwing our first “Brave Shave” party! I’m also excited that we are coming up on one year of hosting quarterly Community Care Pack Parties. The Community Care Pack Parties are an opportunity for all ages to be involved in our mission of hope and love. We make 300 Care Packs through an assembly line process, and have different stations to personalize the care packs including; kids craft table, handwritten notes, bag décor, sewing, etc.

Me: In addition to the chemo packs, what other types of services do you provide clients ofTenaciously Teal?

Tarah: Although our name derives from Ovarian Cancer Awareness, we are a non-profit dedicated to meeting the needs of all cancer patients through our Care Packs, Gas/ Grocery cards, and throwing private Brave Shave parties for individuals facing hair loss to chemotherapy. A Brave Shave is something unique to our services and is an opportunity for patients to face hair loss with courage while we support them through advice, venue or in-home, stylist, appetizers, and encouragement. We also provide women with the opportunity to access a Mac professional make-up session and an empowerment shoot with a volunteer photographer after their Brave Shave. Having “Brave Shave” parties as one of our services was important to me. I want to empower women and help them through this difficult process of hair loss. Women don’t realize that hair loss occurs quickly, generally after your second chemo, and it falls out in clumps. It’s very traumatizing, and my motto has been “cancer can take your hair but not your courage”. When it came time to lose my hair I invited my stylist and friends over to my house. My friends brought good food, drinks, and music and we laughed and cried through the afternoon. The experience, however, was empowering and having my friends there with me helped me to be courageous. We want to help other women feel courageous through a Brave Shave, which is a concierge service of sorts where we take care of everything and tailor it to their taste and likes!

In addition, we have given over $16,000 in gas/grocery cards to patients identified as being in need by hospital social workers or nurses. I didn’t realize this before I began treatment, but there are literally individuals who choose to forgo treatment because they can’t afford the gas to get there, and we never want that to happen!

Me: Four years ago, you were battling cancer. Now you’re running an organization that supports nine treatment centers and supported hundreds of people battling cancer. When you first heard those formidable words, “you’ve got cancer,” did you ever imagine that statement would lead you here?

Tarah: No way! If you would have told me I would be running a nonprofit after my cancer diagnosis, I would have totally thought you were crazy. In fact, when people encouraged me to continue the Cancer Care Pack mission after my chemo ended, I wasn’t sure if I could do it. If I could keep going to the hospitals and chemo rooms, the smells, sights, and being around the medicine that had made me so sick, but I felt compelled to.  God asked me to, because there were still people who were going to be sick with chemo and have to face the treatment center day after day, and I needed to be strong so I could continue helping people find joy, hope, and light in the darkness.

Me: What is the one piece of advice you would want to share with someone looking to follow in your footsteps by using their own unique talents and life experiences to give back?

Tarah: It sounds so cliché, but DON’T GIVE UP!  Your talents and life experiences can really help other people, but it does take time and effort, although it is completely worth it! There is no better feeling in this world than helping, meeting a need, or serving someone. Loving and serving others gets down in the far reaching parts of our human hearts and fills it up in an unexplainable way. It’s not always easy, but again always worth it.

Also if you’re looking to start an organization, remember it is a marathon not a race, and every little bit of time and effort counts in the end. You’re also not expected to be good at all facets of organizational formation. Find people who can help you with their time and talents, because “Teamwork makes the dream work!” ;-)

Connect with Tarah and keep up with all the great things Tenaciously Teal is doing on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

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