Tabitha Briggs has had the explosive beats of Delta Sigma Theta’s Step Show routine on her mind since June.
Right step, right step, left step, clap. One, two, three, four .
Once a week she also hears a slower beat, one she hopes will save her life.
Drip, drip, drip .
Briggs goes to Nashville’s Centennial Medical Center once a week for chemotherapy. Every three weeks her body gets a one-week break from the treatment that she depends on to cure her of cancer.
And now, after five months of practicing, she gets a break from stomping away at the Step Show routine.
The Franklin junior was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago after she found two lumps in her left breast.
She was 20.
She underwent a mastectomy and a breast implant during the same surgery. The cancer has now spread to her liver and lungs.
After her diagnosis, Briggs thought her life was over.
“Automatically I was like ‘Oh, I’m going to die. I’m not going to be here. I’m not going to finish school. I’m not going to get married,” she said.
But each day she’s proving her first thought was wrong.
“I try to live every day like it is my last,” she said. “Just because I have cancer, it doesn’t mean I can’t do everything.”
Struggling and surviving
On a Wednesday morning, Briggs fidgets with her hands and yawns. She’s sitting in the waiting room of the Tennessee Oncology Center. Nadine Neblett, her mother, sits beside her. Neblett goes to each of Briggs’ chemo sessions.
“We grew up together,” Neblett said of her daughter. “I was 19 when I had her. So this whole thing is doubly hard. I have to see my daughter and best friend go through this.”
“Tabitha Briggs,” the nurse calls out.
Her mom follows her through the door. Briggs gets weighed, has her blood pressure, pulse and temperature taken. A blood sample is collected. None of it seems to faze her. She’s been through the routine all too many times.
Briggs will be considered in remission after her white blood cell count is below 35. Her count has been as high as 1,600, but with chemotherapy that number has dropped to around 300 for the past few weeks.
“I’ve been in chemo for a year now. I still have cancer,” she said. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take. I just guess I’ll be taking it until the cancer is gone . The cancer is going away, it is just slowly going away.”
She makes her way into the open room filled with large, beige recliners. Next to each is a tall metal stand and an infusion pump that regulates the amount of fluid that flows into an IV.
Briggs chooses a seat along the back wall.
Neblett sits silently next to her daughter during her chemotherapy.
“She’s my best friend and my mom,” Briggs said. “Without her, I probably wouldn’t make it. She does so much for me. She does everything.”
Her small body is dwarfed by the oversized chair. She is surrounded by beeps, whispering and the occasional breeze when a nurse walks briskly by.
The other patients are at least 50 years old.
“I’m always the youngest one in here,” she said. “I’ve gotten used to it. When I first started, it was weird seeing all older people. They are all sick, and I’m all energetic and lively and cracking up all the time.”
Briggs’ positive attitude has given Sara Ann Akin hope. The Franklin, Tenn., woman has had cancer since 1997. She said having Briggs around always makes her feel better.
“She’s always smiling,” Akin said. “At this age, she’s going through a lot. But she is also doing a lot. She is a deserving young lady.”
After chemo, Briggs curls up in the chair waiting for test results.
“I’m sleepy,” she says, yawning.
Fatigue is the biggest side-effect Briggs has faced since her diagnosis, but it isn’t the only one. She has lost her hair, her eyebrows, her eyelashes.
“My hair came out really fast,” Briggs said. “. One day I just pumped myself up to just shave my head.”
Her hair is growing in now, short and soft like a baby’s, with a few bald spots. She owns four wigs.
“Being 20, I wanted to look nice and pretty,” she said. “. But now I’m just like, ‘whatever’ about the no hair thing.”
Neblett said she is worried about her daughter’s condition but wants to follow her wishes.
“I try not to treat her like she’s sick,” Neblett said. “I try to treat her like before. I try not to think of her like she’s dying of cancer, but of her living with it.”
Stepping her way
Briggs leaned back with her eyes closed, trying to catch a little rest in a locker room in Bowling Green High School. She’s waited for her team’s turn to perform in the Step Show Saturday night.
“I’m just ready for this whole thing to get over with,” she said with a tired sigh. “The waiting is horrible.”
Eventually the beats of hip-hop overtook Briggs. She pulled herself up and started to dance with her fellow steppers. They weren’t practicing. They were doing every kind of dance move but those in the show.
The six-member team had been practicing two to five times a week since June. They went through the 15-minute routine three times each practice.
“The second and third time, I have no energy,” Briggs said. “I have to make myself do it. I have to push myself. And I’m just exhausted.”
Something to prove
Louisville senior Laquetta Shepard, the team’s stepmaster, said Briggs’ cancer has never been a factor in her stepping abilities.
“This is another challenge for her,” Shepard said. “If she wants to do it, then it’s going to happen. She’s been real dedicated to this thing.”
This is Briggs’ second shot at the Step Show. She had to quit the team last year after she found out the cancer had spread.
“I wanted to prove to myself and others that I can do it,” she said.
The Deltas placed second out of two sororities represented at the Step Show.
The group stomped away to their Hollywood-themed routine in red tap shoes, black-and-white pinstriped suits, red shirts and black fedoras, each of which was adorned with a single red feather.
Briggs walked off the stage into the hallway, leaned against the wall and slid to the floor. She was breathing heavily and covered in sweat.
“All I can say is, it’s done,” she said.
An hour before Saturday’s football game, Briggs put on her red suit and high-heels, went into the bathroom and picked up the Styrofoam head wearing her wig. She brushed it and placed it on her head.
“The good thing about losing your hair is that you can just slap your wig on and comb it down and just go,” she said.
Briggs was the National Pan-Hellenic Council’s representative for the Homecoming court.
She placed third out of 21 candidates.
“I’m excited,” she said after receiving a plaque. “But I’m tired.”
Just because she’s tired doesn’t mean she’ll quit.
Briggs won’t be done with cancer even after it is done with her. She plans on working for a non-profit cancer organization, such as the American Cancer Society, after graduation.
She’s already telling her story to college campuses around the state hoping to encourage other students to take better care of their bodies.
“I want to help others who are in my situation,” she said. “Just give back and be a testimony to some other people. To give them hope and to let them know that they still can do things.”
Death isn’t something Briggs even thinks about.
“I don’t let it bother me,” she said. “I think that I’m going to get better . I don’t think I’m going to die anytime soon. I don’t let death worry me.”