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 Volume 11, Issue 92  | November 15, 2019


A Life Rewritten: How a devastating diagnosis has put 

Summer Tarango’s future into sharper focus

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photography by Mary Hurlbut

Last July, Summer Tarango’s life looked fulfilling, at least from the outside. She was the operations manager at zpizza, a satisfying job she’d held for 14 years. She owned her own catering company. Her relationship with longtime boyfriend, Ed Benrock (a drummer for Jamestown Revival), stood on solid ground. Summer had a posse of good friends, two close sisters, and a strong bond with her mother. “I was happy,” Summer says, looking back. “But nothing was exciting. I was going through the motions.” 

Summer and Ed celebrated the Fourth of July weekend with a bike ride in Austin, Texas. She admits to some trepidation, but – true to her nature – Summer seemed up for anything, and didn’t want to put a damper on the day by confessing any fears. 

The ride ended with a bad fall. Summer suffered a significant laceration on her forehead and a banged-up knee, though nothing that time and stitches shouldn’t resolve. As the months wore on, however, the knee didn’t heal. Doctors suspected an infection. 

When Summer discovered a lump in her armpit, they feared the infection had spread. Afraid to pierce the lump and risk spreading it further, they waited…and waited, treating her with antibiotics. Nothing improved. Finally, before sending Summer off to an infectious disease specialist, her doctor performed a biopsy to rule out anything significant. They weren’t worried, they said, but they wanted to cover their bases.

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Smiling Summer presents a pretty picture worthy of her name

As Summer sat alone in a parking lot on her way to work the Friday before Thanksgiving, the call came. Summer, at 42 years of age, had stage 3C triple-negative breast cancer – and it was aggressive. Further testing revealed she also had the BRCA mutation. Treatment, she was told, could not wait. Within two weeks, Summer had begun her first round of chemotherapy.

A triple-negative diagnosis and the BRCA gene mutation

Triple-negative breast cancer is more common in younger patients, and more common still in women with the BRCA gene. The three typical receptors that fuel breast cancer – estrogen, progesterone, and the HER-2 gene – are not present in these types of tumors. The result is that common treatment methods – hormone therapy and other drugs – that target those receptors can’t be used. This cancer tends to be more aggressive, though still responsive to chemotherapy.

A BRCA mutation is a change in either of two genes – BRCA1 or BRCA2 – that prevents that gene from working properly. Both BRCA1 and BRCA2 are tumor suppressor genes. Summer is the only woman in her family with the mutation.

All this adds up to a complicated diagnosis, and a long and grueling treatment plan utilizing a combination of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. That would be difficult for any patient to hear. For Summer, coming from a background rooted in holistic medicine, her choice was made even harder.

Mother of all healing

Summer’s mother, Vijaya Stern, teaches and practices Ayurvedic medicine in Laguna Beach. Ayurveda is one of the world’s oldest holistic healing systems, developed approximately 5,000 years ago in India. It’s based on the belief that health and wellness depend on a delicate balance between the mind, body, and spirit. 

“When the soul is hindered by the divisive nature of the ego, ‘dis-ease’ begins to manifest,” says Vijaya Stern on her website, www.livingrasa.com. 

Vijaya has studied this ancient healing practice since the late 1970s, when Summer was a toddler. At her Living Rasa studio, she offers healing, yoga, classes, and retreats. Vijaya’s patients are treated with herbs, not pharmaceutical drugs. Health is managed with diet, meditation, yoga, and other natural practices. 

Western medicine – particularly aggressive and invasive treatments like chemotherapy – is obviously in direct opposition to Ayurveda’s philosophy. Even the antibiotics Summer took for that initial knee infection were her first experience with Western medicine. Vijaya’s beliefs are clear: “Ayurveda sees all of creation as the Mother herself.” 

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Summer finds meditation calming, and combines Western and holistic/ayurvedic approaches to help her heal

“Going through chemo is not what she would have wanted [for me],” Summer says. “I told her, This is what I’m doing, and you have to accept my choice. She does, but she struggles with it.”

Summer’s diagnosis has been an amazing teacher for both mother and daughter, she says. “I thought we were so close, and we are, but we’re getting challenged. I don’t invite her to chemo. I can’t expect her to watch that happen. But I’ve found the places where she can be of assistance: dietary help, or just giving me attention and love.”

East meets west

Summer is embracing both ends of the medical spectrum on her journey to recovery. Perhaps that’s not uncommon. But, in Summer’s case, it feels a bit more urgent and necessary. She draws strength from her mother’s practice, following a strict diet as best she can, incorporating yoga and other spiritual practices. 

Summer works with an integrative medicine specialist, receiving Vitamin C infusions, weekly B12 shots, and other alternative supplements and strategies. She uses an app called “Insight Timer” for guided meditations and relaxing music, which I went home to download and now use myself. 

But she’s also enduring the debilitating rounds of chemotherapy (including a particularly aggressive regimen of a drug called “The Red Devil,” which is even worse than it sounds). And she’s planning ahead for a future full of more chemo, radiation, and surgery. 

“When I was diagnosed my first thought was, I’m going to be so inspirational to people. I’m going to show everyone how to cook. I’m going to stick to the Keto diet my doctor wants me on. I was going to show everyone how you can be so amazing during cancer. But chemo kicked my ass. Most days, I’m just trying to get any food in,” Summer says.

“Now I’m giving myself some grace. That plan didn’t happen, and it’s okay. I’m getting out of bed, getting dressed, and saying ‘yes’ to things. Just getting through is a victory.”

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Summer finds comfort in the natural beauty surrounding her mother’s home

As Summer tells this story, I find her authenticity far more inspirational than her original plan. Strength in the face of crisis takes many different forms, and “success” has shifting definitions. Discovering our limitations, accepting them with grace, and finding new ways to accommodate them…that strikes me as success.

A healing circle: the defining moment

About a month back, Vijaya held a healing circle for Summer. Thirty two women spanning several generations (from their 30s to their 70s), some close to Summer and some close to her mother, gathered in Vijaya’s home. They shared their hopes for her, as well as their observations of how Summer impacts their lives.

One friend told Summer she was the chain in their friendship necklace, gathering beads of women and stringing them together to create something unique and beautiful. “It’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever experienced,” Summer says.

A friend of Vijaya’s performed Reiki, a Japanese practice that promotes physical wellbeing through the laying on of hands, using touch to activate the body’s natural healing process. “Because of the Reiki, I was so incredibly present,” says Summer. She describes the music, the incense, the whipping of an eagle feather over her head, transporting herself back to the moment as she’s describing it.

“I’d never been that present in my life,” she says. “Six months ago, I don’t know if I could have taken that in. Now I was able to look in every woman’s eyes and listen. Before, I would have been self-deprecating. Now I need it. I need the love and energy. How else will I get through this?”

It’s clear, in our time together, that this moment marked a defining change in Summer’s life. “I didn’t know an experience like this existed,” she said. “And now I want more. I want to live in that moment.” 

Meaningful conversations: A Soulful Project

Summer also wants more meaningful conversations. Before her diagnosis, she’d been working with Summer Meek from Soul Project on ways to forge deeper connections with women. Summer is part of what she laughingly calls a coven – 13 girlfriends whom she’s carefully strung on her friendship chain. 

The dinners are intended to gather women together for meaningful discussions about soulful topics. In other words, not your typical ladies-night-out-wine-and-gossip. It’s a chance to be real with each other – vulnerable, authentic, and honest.

Summer looks forward to the day when she’s strong enough to make those dinners happen. In the meantime, she stays close to her coven. The women all show up for her in different and important ways. I ask how her diagnosis has changed her relationships with friends. “It’s just exaggerated things that were already there,” she says. For the good and the bad.

Summer’s Backyard Barbecue

In the meantime, before the Soul Project dinners and intense conversations, Summer is celebrating life with a Backyard Barbecue intended to raise money for her treatments. On Sunday, May 20 from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., friends, family and anyone interested can join in at the Blinking Owl Distillery in Santa Ana. Ed’s band, Jamestown Revival, will play. Nirvana Grille will support the event (Summer’s sister, Lindsay, is the chef and co-owner of Nirvana). 

To learn more about how to attend or participate, visit www.youcaring.com/summertarango-1171518.

A life being lived, a story being rewritten

Not every narrative has an easy ending, and Summer’s story is still in progress, a new page written each day. There are a lot of unknowns. But there are also a few beautiful certainties. 

“I don’t see the point of working my way through this just to go back to a mundane life. What’s the point?” she says. “This is really hard. Chemo is hard. Here’s the chance to work through relationships, create the life I want, and explore my wildest dreams. What brings me deep joy? How can I bring these experiences that I’ve had to other women? I won’t finish this and go back to life as it was. I’m already seeing glimpses of it. It already looks totally different.”

Now and again, life forces us into a wormhole. Challenges arise that push us through some painful portal that changes us forever. Looking back from the other side – 

with the perspective gained from an intense experience, instead of the inevitable slow roll of time – our old lives can almost seem unrecognizable. Call it wisdom, call it personal growth, call it a gift. Not everyone gets it. 

It’s not easy to learn vicariously through others’ obstacles. But it’s worth reminding ourselves to pay attention, and to stop accepting the status quo if it’s no longer serving us. Other ways of living are within reach, if only we’re willing to stretch ourselves, take risks, and seize opportunities. That seemed to be the lesson embedded in Summer’s story. 

As Summer faces life’s biggest question – What’s the point? – I’m certain she won’t stop until she finds her answer. In many ways, maybe she already has.

Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor & Writer.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Mary Hurlbut is our Chief Photographer.

Alexis Amaradio, Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Lynette Brasfield, Marrie Stone, Maggi Henrikson, Samantha Washer, and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists. Scott Brashier is our photographer.

Stacia Stabler is our Social Media Manager & Writer.

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