Tara Coppedge never imagined that one of her assignments as a reporter would result in forming a deep bond with Rhonda Howell, who had already been living with metastatic breast cancer (MBC) for two years when they met in 2017.
About one-third of women diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in the U.S. live at least five years after diagnosis.
When she met Rhonda, Tara was working for Spectrum News 1 as a television news anchor in Raleigh, North Carolina. “I was passionate about doing stories to raise awareness about cancer. My mom is a breast cancer survivor, and my dad is a prostate cancer survivor,” Tara said.
A friend called Tara with a tip on a story about a local woman – Rhonda – who was living with MBC and planning to travel to Washington, D.C., to speak to members of Congress about the need to pass critical legislation to help those living with the disease. Rhonda agreed to allow Tara to accompany her on the trip to cover the story.
“We walked the halls of the Capitol together,” Tara said. “To see Rhonda go into these lawmakers’ offices and talk to them was very powerful. She was so well-spoken; she wasn’t angry or pushy. She had this presence about her where you would want to listen. She was really the perfect advocate.”
What was meant to be a short news piece evolved into a 10-minute feature story that aired during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month that October. The friendship Tara and Rhonda formed on the trip flourished into a sisterhood.
“We automatically clicked. I looked at her like a big sister. She would be the one I would ask for advice about everything in my life,” Tara said. “She was really somebody I could really rely on. There are not that many people you form friendships with where you know that person will always be there for you.”
Rhonda and Tara bonded over Tara’s dream to have a baby with her husband, Matthew. “We had similar journeys as far as getting married a little older in life,” Tara said. “We would talk about that and having kids, and she knew I really wanted a baby. She was in her 30s when she had her son, Luke. We would always talk about what it was like having a child in your 30s.”
In the same way Rhonda supported Tara in her journey to motherhood, Tara sought to be a supportive friend as Rhonda enrolled in new clinical trials, hoping to defy the odds and spend as many years as she could with Luke and her husband, Adam. Even as Rhonda fought for her life, Tara remembers that she always put others first.
“She had such a warm personality, and she made you feel so special in talking with her,” Tara said. “One of our last lunches together was to celebrate our birthdays. I went to the bathroom after looking at a ring that I liked in a store we had visited together. Before we left, she gave me the ring. She had purchased it when I was in the bathroom. Little things like that made her such a sweet and thoughtful person.”
Tara found out she was pregnant just before Rhonda passed away on Jan. 26, 2022. Rhonda died never knowing Tara’s dream to be a mother would become a reality.
This year’s Together We Thrive: A Gala for Metastatic Breast Cancer Research was held in Rhonda’s memory on June 11, 2022, in Raleigh. Rhonda had formerly co-chaired the gala, and her friends and family members attended to honor the life of someone lost far too soon to MBC.
Tara and Matthew welcomed their daughter, Bryden, on Aug. 31, 2022, seven months after Rhonda passed away. Knowing that Luke will grow up without his mother has been one of the most heartbreaking realities to accept about Rhonda’s passing, Tara said.
“Luke was her joy. Rhonda loved being a mom, and she was such a great mom,” Tara said. “The hardest part is knowing that she wanted to live long enough until his age was in the double digits. The hardest part is thinking about Luke being without her.”
Since Rhonda’s passing, Tara stays connected to Rhonda’s mom, Ginger, and to Luke and Adam. She emphasized the importance of remembering to support and provide for those who have lost a loved one to MBC.
“I try every day to make Rhonda proud in what I do and think about how she lived,” Tara said. “She had such a big impact on people, and she was known for being so loving. That inspires me; I want to be like that, too. I want to honor Rhonda in everything I do.”
Her friendship with Rhonda ultimately inspired Tara to pursue a different career path where she can truly make a difference for people living with MBC. Tara now works as the Director of Marketing and Communications for the Pretty in Pink Foundation, a local nonprofit that helps under-resourced breast cancer patients in her community pay for their treatments.
“My friendship with Rhonda really made me take a look at my priorities,” Tara said. “I now feel like I’m able to tell stories about people who are bravely facing this disease and help women in my community, which I hope would make Rhonda proud.”
Donations made to Komen this week will be designated for critical MBC research. Since our founding, Komen has invested $1.1 billion in breast cancer research, with 72% of our currently funded research projects focused on MBC and other aggressive and deadly breast cancers. Above and beyond the millions of research funding provided each year, this year, we are going one step further to raise $1 million to fund the first ever MBC Excellence in Research Award. Donate to end MBC.