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Tara Gunter, center, is pictured with her husband, Adam, left; her son, Jacob Robison, right; and her daughter, Paisley Ann Gunter.
MOBILE, Ala. (9/6/2017) -- Four years ago, Tara Gunter of Thomasville was bringing a new life into the world when learned she must start fighting for her own.
Her battle began when she was 28 weeks pregnant and her health insurance stopped covering her OB-GYN doctor. As a result, she started seeing Dr. Fred Diegmann in Fairhope. “Because I was a new patient, he checked me out from head to toe,” said Gunter, 38.
Her pap smear was suspect, so Diegmann repeated it. Then he ordered a biopsy. A week later, Gunter learned she had cervical cancer.
“When the results came back, I was 30 weeks pregnant, and it was right at Christmas time,” she said. “I was shocked and scared, and I wondered how I was going to get through Christmas, how I was going to tell my son, Jacob, and I wondered if this would be my last Christmas.”
But the Clarke County woman found comfort at USA Mitchell Cancer Institute in Mobile. Joining Diegmann, her team of doctors included Dr. David Lewis, a high-risk obstetrician, and Dr. Michael Finan, a gynecologic oncologist and now executive director of Mitchell Cancer Institute.
“MCI was wonderful,” Gunter said. “If I hear of anybody who has cancer, I always tell them to go to Mitchell. From the lady who opens the door when you get out of your car, to the nurses and the ladies who clean the room, they are just wonderful. They treat you like family.”
Gunter’s treatment began with a surgical procedure called a cone biopsy performed by Finan, followed by bed rest for two weeks. At 35 weeks, she gave birth to baby Paisley Anne via C-section, and Finan performed a radical hysterectomy. Because of feeding problems, Paisley Anne stayed in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at USA Children’s & Women’s Hospital for 14 days.
Meanwhile, the biopsy revealed that Gunter had stage 1B2 cervical cancer, meaning that the tumor was large but had not spread to her lymph nodes. She underwent three rounds of internal radiation, finishing on March 10, 2013.
Gunter returned to MCI four months later to undergo a PET scan to check for signs of cancer. A week later, she learned the cancer had returned.
On August 28, 2013, Gunter began a chemo and radiation protocol at MCI.
“The radiation made me really tired,” she said. “I lost a lot of weight, and the treatments made me really sick. Usually, I would sleep through treatment and all the way home and until the next day.”
During her second of six chemo and radiation treatments, she said she “got ink.”
“I got tattoos that day,” she recalled. “I have a dot on each hip where they lined up the radiation.” The small ink dots are placed by the Radiation Oncology staff to mark the fields to be radiated.
This time, Gunter’s PET scan was clear, but Finan wanted to be sure.
“He said that he can’t predict the future but it would be best if I did six more rounds of chemo,” Gunter recalled. “They would be really strong round, and I would lose my hair. He has been wonderful throughout, and I said to myself, ‘If that is what he recommends, I trust him.’”
Gunter started her new protocol on January 7, 2014. “I was told that within 10 days, I will lose my hair, and by January 20, I was completely bald,” she said.
Gunter finished treatment in May 2014. She has been in remission almost four years.
Throughout her treatment, Gunter relied on her close-knit family to help with the new baby and the travel to Mobile for treatments. She says she could not have handled both without her husband, Adam, sister, Lensi Taylor, and mother, Debbie Robison.
“My husband drove me 100 miles to MCI and 100 miles back for every treatment, including internal radiation, regular radiation and chemo,” Gunter said.
Gunter, who has no family history of cervical cancer, now encourages others to get the HPV vaccine and undergo annual pap smears. The HPV vaccine, recommended for adolescents, prevents infection from the human papillomavirus, which is linked to cervical cancer.
“Before all this happened, I did not normally go to the doctor for my yearly checkups,” she said. “I did not make time for them. Now, I make sure I get my checkups.”
These days, Gunter substitute teaches part time at Clarke Preparatory School in Grove Hill. She enjoys attending her teenage son Jacob’s baseball and football games, and traveling with Paisley Anne, now 4, as she competes in International Girl pageants.
“Wherever the kids are involved, that is where I am,” Gunter said.
After winning Clarke County and Alabama International Girl competitions, Paisley Anne recently won the 2017 International Girl International Tiny Miss Beauty at the national competition in Atlanta.
“I am very blessed to be able to go with her to do the pageants,” Gunter said after her daughter’s big win in Atlanta. “If it were not for her, I might not be here. She will always be my angel and lifesaver.”
Gunter has three stepsons, Sean, 32, Cody, 20, and Chase, 18, and says that check-ups at MCI are a family affair.
“I go for check-ups every year and for Paisley Anne’s birthday,” she said. “We bring donated items to the Ronald McDonald House, where my family stayed, and we visit the doctors and nurses. We want them to know we really appreciate all they did for us.”
About MCI: USA Mitchell Cancer Institute is the only academic cancer research and treatment area on the Gulf Coast corridor, with offices in Mobile, Fairhope and Monroeville.
© 2017 USA Health System