By Ann Miller Baker
The nickname “Tenacious Theresa” fits, for obvious reasons.
Theresa Jean-Pierre Coy is a wife, mother, attorney, small business owner, immediate past president of the George Edgecomb Bar Association and, now, a cancer survivor.
She says she’s always considered herself a strong woman. "If you ask my parents, they’d say I was a strong-willed child,” she quips. "I am one of those people that will keep doing something until I get the results that I want. I won’t give up, and that’s in anything and everything.”
Consider her road to motherhood. Jean-Pierre Coy endured six miscarriages before she and husband Travis were blessed with son Thaddeus in January of 2017. Given their history, they found it hard to celebrate this seventh pregnancy. “It was more like, ‘It’s just a matter of time before we lose this one.’ ”
They almost did.
Jean-Pierre Coy was hospitalized on bedrest six months into the pregnancy. She made it three more weeks before an emergency C-section delivery. “I was just waiting for the doctor to peek over the surgical drape and say, ‘I’m so sorry, he didn’t make it.’ ” Until he lifted the baby for mom to see and nudged the boy’s lips for a good, strong cry. “And that’s when I literally started crying.”
As it turns out, Thaddeus is just as tenacious as his mom. Though his first 10 days were spent in neonatal intensive care, he’s been a happy, healthy boy ever since. “He looks like his daddy, but he acts like his mommy,” she says. “He is independent, strong-willed, stubborn. I’ve got my work cut out for me. We’ve BOTH got our work cut out for us.”
Jean-Pierre Coy didn’t initially pause to think that much about changes in one of her breasts six months after Thaddeus was born. “It didn’t seem odd to me that one was firmer than the other,” she recalls, writing it off to possible blockage of a milk duct. “Like all working women, I thought, I’m taking care of Thaddeus, and I’ll get to the doctor when I can.”
It was October by the time she made it in for her first-ever mammogram, at age 37. When the test was complete, the mammography tech handed Jean-Pierre Coy a pink bracelet for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
“Looking back, she knew — even though she couldn’t tell me anything,” says Jean-Pierre Coy. The radiologist asked to talk with her after the exam. “He said, ‘I don’t think it’s an infection because you’d most likely feel pain. So, this may be cancerous.’ And I just kept saying — what?”
In the midst of these medical issues, Jean-Pierre Coy had been making connections she would come to appreciate in a new light, across two organizations inspired by the same community leader.
The George Edgecomb Bar Association, for which Jean-Pierre Coy then served as president, is described on its website as Tampa’s largest predominantly African-American voluntary bar association. The association and Moffitt’s George Edgecomb Society to support research into black cancer disparities are both named in memory of Hillsborough County’s first African-American judge. Diagnosed with cancer and unable to find local options for treatment, Judge George Edgecomb was only 34 years old when he died in 1976. That loss was one of the motivating factors behind his friend and then-state representative H. Lee Moffitt’s commitment to build a world-class cancer center in Tampa.
As president of the bar association, Jean-Pierre Coy had spent the months after her son’s birth planning an annual membership luncheon. Lanse Scriven, a past president who is also a founding member of Moffitt’s Edgecomb Society, had suggested the luncheon might be a good way for local attorneys and judges to learn more about Moffitt’s minority cancer research efforts and the history both groups shared through Judge Edgecomb. Jean-Pierre Coy and Scriven got to know many Moffitt leaders in preparation for the luncheon. By mid-July, Scriven came to know Moffitt on a different level — as a newly diagnosed prostate cancer patient.
Fast-forward to October and the words “may be cancerous” from Jean-Pierre Coy’s mammography radiologist. She had trouble scheduling a breast biopsy through her family physician and reached out to her Moffitt contacts for help. A biopsy and follow-up mammogram were immediately scheduled at Moffitt. Within a week, Jean-Pierre Coy was sitting in an exam room with Brian Czerniecki, MD, PhD, the chair of Moffitt’s Breast Oncology Department.
His words, Jean-Pierre Coy recalls, were not a total shock given the mammography radiologist’s concern. She had inflammatory breast cancer, stage three. Tumor cells were disseminated through the lymphatic fluids and skin of her breast, creating patterns like an orange peel.
“My first question to Dr. Czerniecki was, ‘Am I going to die?’ ” “Tenacious Theresa” needed to plan for her son, Thaddeus. “I remember the look on his face,” says Jean-Pierre Coy, “kind of shocked that I would even think that.”
Czerniecki had a different plan in mind. Chemotherapy would start immediately with a mastectomy and radiation to follow.
“I approach every patient, no matter what stage they are, with hope,” says Czerniecki.
So far, Jean-Pierre Coy has taken that hope and run with it. Chemo and surgery are behind her — no small feat considering she took very little time off after the birth of her son and remains a fully engaged mom. At this writing, Jean-Pierre Coy is going through radiation therapy. She credits the unwavering love and support of her husband and family, as well as her faith, for getting her through the times when she didn’t even want to get out of bed. And she has the utmost respect for her Moffitt care team: a wealth of caring nurses and four physicians she calls her “cast of characters.”
Besides Thaddeus and the rest of her family, she also has found new inspiration for her fight. Inflammatory breast cancer is more common and diagnosed at younger ages in black women than in white women. And that makes Moffitt’s cancer disparities research all the more important to Jean-Pierre Coy.
The 2018 bar association banquet in April gave attendees a chance to hear about bright black high school students interested in the law whose college careers will benefit from the association’s scholarship support.
Then, they heard a different kind of story: a video of Jean- Pierre Coy and Scriven disclosing their cancer battles at Moffitt Cancer Center.
Many had no idea what their current and former association presidents had been going through, or that the cancers they were battling take an inordinate toll on blacks and African Americans.
But thanks to Jean-Pierre Coy and Scriven, they learned about Moffitt’s efforts to address these cancer disparities through the research funding efforts of its George Edgecomb Society. They even met some of the Moffitt researchers studying disparities in prostate and pancreatic cancer with society grants, including Drs. Kosj Yamoah, Jennifer Permuth and Jung Choi.
And together, they raised $120,000 for the George Edgecomb Society to fund further disparities research at Moffitt.
“I don’t think anything is a coincidence,” Jean-Pierre Coy says, thinking back to the weeks she and Scriven spent planning these joint bar association and society events, even before their respective diagnoses. “It formed a bond between the two of us — and between our two organizations — that we didn’t expect.
“We’re the largest African-American Bar Association in the Bay area. To be able to raise money in Judge Edgecomb’s name that will go strictly to trying to find out why we African Americans are at higher risk for certain types of cancers — I don’t know of any other organizations doing this. And I think we’ve barely scratched the surface.
“To be a small part of that money being raised is the single thing I’m most proud of. I know what it’s going for. I want that research done, so we can figure out what’s going on.”
And you can bet that Tenacious Theresa won’t give up on this cause.
This article is part of Moffitt Momentum® magazine, a publication that shares portraits of hope, innovation and triumph, all leading to the same end: beating cancer. Click here to access the full issue of the magazine in PDF format.