As a student at Coopersville High School, Jason Mervau knew Tarah Tavolacci as the younger sister of his classmates. However, being almost four years her senior, their paths didn’t cross often. That would change after a chance meeting at a gas station led to the two exchanging phone numbers.
“I never did call you, right?” Jason asks.
“No, I called you,” Tarah says with a smile.
Regardless of who made the first contact, the result was a love that led to marriage in 2002. The young couple didn’t know then about the difficult path that lay before them. There has been tremendous happiness in their lives but also sorrow they never could have foreseen. First, they bore the loss of a child and now the family’s entire future seems uncertain as Tarah battles a rare form of cancer.
The couple is navigating these rough waters with faith and optimism. They cling to hope as medical scientists race to develop new treatments. Surrounding them are family, friends, co-workers and the St. Patrick community – all ready to offer whatever assistance they can to a family enduring more than most can imagine.
Building a family together
Early in their marriage, Jason worked as a finish carpenter while Tarah was pursuing a career in health care. While Tarah would eventually become a registered nurse, her husband decided to change tracks and entered the law enforcement field. Today, he is a part of the Kent County Sherriff’s Department.
In 2009, the couple started a family only to be met with tragedy as daughter Riley was stillborn. However, they welcomed Isabelle in 2010, and she was followed by sisters Harper in 2012 and Charlotte in 2014. All three girls currently attend St. Patrick School in 3rd grade, 1st grade and preschool, respectively.
Meanwhile, Tarah had begun working as a palliative care nurse at Spectrum Health’s Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion. There, she encountered far too many young women who had been diagnosed with cancer and were entering hospice care.
“That really drove me to get testing done,” she says. The testing was to look for gene mutations that indicate a woman is at higher risk for cancer.
When Tarah’s results came back, she was positive for BRCA1 which meant she was susceptible to ovarian and breast cancer. Women who are positive for BRCA1 can do nothing and monitor their health or choose to proactively have a hysterectomy and double mastectomy to reduce the cancer risk. Tarah and Jason choose the latter.
“Thought it was going to be preventative”
Testing positive for BCRA1 wasn’t good news, but the couple were relieved that they had discovered the problem before it ballooned into something more serious. Or at least, they thought they had.
On October 5, 2018, Tarah had a hysterectomy. “We totally thought it was going to be preventative,” Jason says. The plan was to do the hysterectomy first and then follow up with a mastectomy after Thanksgiving. The surgery was uneventful, and doctors emerged from the procedure feeling confident that there was nothing worrisome about the tissue they removed.
Four days later, the call came.
“We never expected that phone call,” Jason says. “It definitely blindsided me,” Tarah adds.
Calling just after 5pm, the doctor told the stunned couple that a biopsy revealed cancer. A scan completed as part of the surgical planning also revealed four questionable lymph nodes. The year before, Tarah had been treated for a broken rib, and the spots weren’t on the scan taken then. Doctors were alarmed. The lymph nodes were undoubtedly cancerous and needed to be removed immediately.
A few weeks after her hysterectomy, Tarah found herself back in the operating room. This time, the lymph nodes, tucked away under her heart, were extracted. When it was all said and done, Tarah and Jason received devastating news: a stage IV diagnosis of fallopian tube cancer.
Difficult road to treatment
Fallopian tube cancer is one of the rarest forms of gynecological cancer, and there are only 1,500-2,000 cases reported worldwide, according to the University of California San Francisco Medical Center.
Having a rare form of cancer is challenging in and of itself since there is limited research and few proven treatment options. Tarah’s case was complicated by the fact that the cancerous lymph nodes were close to the heart, making radiation treatments impossible. Instead, she would undergo a series of chemotherapy treatments in the hope of beating the cancer into remission.
While cleared to begin chemo, Tarah quickly became sick after her first treatment. A dangerous fever took her to the hospital where she would stay for three weeks while battling a MRSA infection.
“She started looking to me like a hospice patient,” Jason says. “There were some rough days in the hospital.” Charlotte celebrated her fourth birthday there so her mother wouldn’t miss the celebration.
Finally, the night before Thanksgiving, Tarah came home. She was accompanied by oxygen, a walker, a chest tube and IV antibiotics. Jason, who had taken a substantial amount of time off work already, devoted himself to caring for his wife: administering medicine, changing dressings and caring for wounds.
Once the MRSA infection was gone and Tarah was cleared for additional chemotherapy, she endured further setbacks. She spiked fevers, experienced debilitating nausea and landed back in the hospital.
Tarah has just wrapped up her last chemo treatment and a scan will tell whether the cancer is gone from her body. However, doctors say there is no cure for stage IV cancer, and it’s only a matter of time before it comes back.
Hope for the future
Throughout this ordeal, the Mervau family has been surrounded by the love and support of so many people. “It’s hard to put into words how thankful we are,” Jason says.
Fellow police officers picked up Jason’s shifts so he could be with his wife during her hospitalization and treatments. Tarah’s co-workers have banded together to provide meals and coordinate fundraisers. Her mom arrived after every chemo treatment to help clean and care for Tarah and her children.
The couple worried about whether they would have to pull their three girls from St. Patrick School as medical bills piled up. However, the school told them not to worry about paying for tuition and after school care costs. Meanwhile, teachers decided to forego their annual Christmas gift exchange and instead made a donation to help the family cover their health care and other bills. Tarah says it’s hard to accept help, but she is overwhelmingly grateful.
“We’re hoping she’ll be within that 5 percent that beats it,” Jason says. However, the couple knows the statistics are not in their favor. While some doctors have been optimistic, Jason recalls stopping a nurse practitioner he trusted in the hall and asking her about Tarah’s prognosis. With tears in her eyes, the nurse told Jason to go home and make as many memories as they could.
It could be months or it could be years, but eventually Tarah will have a recurrence. The Mervaus best hope is for years of remission which would perhaps buy enough time for newer, more effective treatments to be developed.
For now, Jason and Tarah are cherishing every moment with their three young girls. If and when cancer returns, they will face it head-on together, but they won’t be alone. An army of friends and family will be behind them, standing ready to help through whatever may come.
The Mervau family faces an uncertain future. Let’s help them make as many positive memories as possible. We understand it’s been 15 years since Tarah and Jason took a vacation, and they have never been on a trip with their girls. We are collecting donations to make that happen this year.
If you would like to contribute toward this or the Mervau family’s other needs, checks can be dropped in the collection basket or sent to St. Patrick School, 4333 Parnell Ave, Ada, MI 49301.