FARMINGTON — Less than two months ago, as she was getting ready for bed, Patty Tafoya felt a lump on her breast.
She scheduled a doctor's appointment, and, on June 10, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Within three weeks, Tafoya had a double mastectomy and has now been scheduled for intensive chemotherapy.
On Thursday, a crowd of family and friends packed into The Head Shop, a Farmington salon. They laughed and cried together as, one by one, 11 women and four men stepped out of the crowd, walked up to the chairs and had their hair shaved in support of Tafoya.
Those whose hair was long enough donated it to Locks of Love. Donations were also accepted to help pay for Tafoya's treatment.
After Tafoya's head was shaved, the team from The Head Shop brought out a crown of pink carnations and placed it on her head as she wiped tears
Tafoya starts her treatment Wednesday. The chemotherapy will make her hair fall out.
"It's kind of an empowering thing to do before the chemo does," she said.
Patrick Smith, Tafoya's father, was one of the first people to get his head shaved.
"Anything that happens to her, I want to happen to me," Smith said.
Smith said the family has been praying a lot since Tafoya's diagnosis. He motioned to the room filled with people and said whenever Tafoya goes to the hospital for treatments, the hospital room is just as crowded with family and friends.
"On the day when she's cancer free, we'll probably throw a ball," Smith said.
Monica Ortega, one of Tafoya's friends, also got her head shaved. As her hair was shaved, she said she was just hoping her head wasn't funny shaped.
"It will grow back," Ortega said. "It was for a good cause."
She reached up and touched her head.
"It feels funny," she added.
Tafoya feels a lot of gratitude to her friends and family.
"This totally inconvenient time could not have come at a better time in my life," she said.
Tafoya said she and her partner and her two children have never been closer.
"The image of myself changed after I got into the relationship with my girlfriend," Tafoya said.
While doctors gave her a special bra for people who have undergone double mastectomies, Tafoya said she doesn't wear it. She just puts on her regular clothes.
"I don't need breasts or hair to be who I want to be," Tafoya said.
After Tafoya's girlfriend, Ashley Gunnell, had her head shaved, she said it felt "liberating."
Gunnell and Tafoya worked together for more than a decade, but they didn't really talk until around four years ago when they connected on Facebook.
"She's always been my first love," Gunnell said. "I'll be right by her side through the whole thing."
Tafoya worked as a waitress for 11 years before quitting her job to attend San Juan College. She earned a 4.0 GPA her spring semester and started summer classes. Three days into the summer classes, she received her cancer diagnosis and dropped out. She plans on returning to college once the treatment is finished.
While Tafoya focused her energy on college classes, her girlfriend continued working to support the family. Gunnell's job offers her with health insurance, but it does not cover Tafoya.
"I suppose if we were married I would be on her insurance," Tafoya said. "But we can't get married in this state."
After her diagnosis, Presbyterian Medical Services signed Tafoya up with the indigent fund and referred her to a cancer center. She applied for Medicaid and is waiting for a Medicaid card.
The indigent fund is available for low-income residents of San Juan County. Victoria Edwards, a claims processor for the Indigent Health Care program, said there are currently about 4,500 people enrolled in the program. Claims are presented at an Indigent Hospital and County Health Care Board meeting and commissioners decide whether or not to approve them. Right now, Edwards said there are around 600 claims a month being processed.
Lisa Gomez, the Indigent Health Care coordinator, said uninsured women diagnosed with breast cancer in San Juan County face a lot of challenges. For instance, many surgeons require a large cash advance from the uninsured.
Because the indigent fund doesn't cover specialists such as radiologists, Gomez said she encourages people who are eligible to apply for Medicaid. Medicaid patients are ineligible for the indigent fund, but Gomez said Medicaid has a lot of advantages. Because Tafoya has yet to receive any Medicaid assistance, she applied for help from the Indigent Health Care program.
"A cancer patient would have a lot of bills we couldn't cover," Gomez said.
Gomez said the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, will help people like Tafoya gain access to Medicaid because the act will expand the program. She said that on Jan. 1, 2014, many residents will have access to more insurance options.
For now, Tafoya is preparing for the cancer treatment surrounded by a group of friends and family known as Team Patty.
"Some moments, I have fear that is unbelievable," Tafoya said.
Tafoya has a tattoo behind her ear that she got after being diagnosed. It reads "Faith," and the "t" is a pink ribbon. Tafoya said when she feels afraid, she just has to have faith.
"I just know everything is going to be OK, and it's just going to make this family stronger," she said.