In early February, Tonya Chilton-Radandt felt great.
The 39-year-old state wildlife biologist had just finished searching for moose throughout the Cabinet Mountains near Libby as part of an extensive study into the species’ declining population. It was a project near and dear to her heart that she helped launch.
On the weekends she was enjoying outdoors, such as 10-mile cross-country ski trips with her husband and their dog.
When she felt a lump on her chest, breast cancer seemed highly unlikely. After all, she was only 39, lived an active lifestyle and had no family history of the illness.
But on Feb. 14, the mammogram results revealed that Chilton-Radandt indeed had breast cancer. The tumor required immediate attention, and she dropped everything and flew to Arizona for treatment.
In the early stages of an MRI, another shocking discovery occurred when doctors found a benign mass clinging to her spine, pinching between her spinal cord. The tumor needed to be addressed promptly, otherwise Chilton-Radandt could be permanently paralyzed within a matter of months to weeks.
Over the next four months, doctors successfully removed the mass from her spine, performed a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery and sent Chilton-Radandt through her first round of chemotherapy. During the painful process, all of her hair fell out.
Far away from her friends, her home and the work she loved, Chilton-Radandt struggled to heal.
That’s when the email and photos arrived.
On a recent morning at the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional office in Kalispell, a group of almost 20 biologists, managers and other staff gathered inside the garage. One of the biologists brought a rugged set of clippers that was used to shave bears for blood tests.
One by one, everyone shaved their heads. When it was over they all put on black and pink T-shirts that read “Team Tonya” and posed for a picture with their new hairdos as a sign of solidarity.
“There’s very little you can do in that situation, but I think she was at least amused by it,” said Jim Williams, FWP wildlife program manager for Region One. “We thought if we can bring a smile to her during that difficult time, then it’s worth it.”
It brought more than a smile.
“It meant so much. It was unbelievable. Without that kind of support, I don’t know how people get through this,” Chilton-Radandt said. “To have that show of support made a huge difference, a world of a difference for me. And it made me appreciate how healing support can be.”
Chilton-Radandt, a native of Iowa, joined FWP in 1998 as a bear management officer. Four years ago she transitioned to Libby and has been working on organizing the moose study.
In that time, her coworkers have become close friends, and the recent support reminded her of that.
“We’ve always been more of a family than anything, even before my diagnosis,” she said. “I think that’s one of the reasons why I chose to work for this department and stay with it … But this to me was going far beyond even that. To see that other people made that big change and they didn’t have to, that was a huge deal to me. I’m so grateful.”
Last week, Chilton-Radandt returned home. Soon she will start the second of three phases of chemotherapy. She’s already planning to try and work any way she can by July. She’s eager to be with her family again.
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