For first-time ranchers Mark and Tammy Copenhaver, every day is a learning experience and a lesson in communication. It took 30 plus years to fulfill their dream, and with nearly a year of ranching un­der their belt, it’s been a wild ride. Tammy is from the High-Line, and Mark was born and raised in the area. They made a life in Helena, MT, for the past three decades, where they raised their two girls Jeri and Jacki. Tammy worked for Mountain-Pacific Quality Health most recently and Mark for Veteran Affairs. In 2020 they left the city life behind and purchased a ranch in Hingham, MT near Gildford from Roger and Mabel Lincoln. Mark is a dis­tant cousin of Mabel’s. Roger was a farmer and crop sprayer. The call sign for Roger’s grass land­ing strip was 12MT. Looking for a way to honor Roger’s legacy and preserve the history of the land, they named the property 12MT ranch. Mark and Tammy pur­chased a herd of Black Angus on Facebook Marketplace, and over- night, the Copenhavers became cattle ranchers. “Ranching has its trials and tribulations. In re­tirement, I was going after no commitments and no responsi­bility, and what I got was cows, horses, dogs, and kids. There is a lot of good with the lifestyle. The cows are the fun part. We are get­ting better at communication. If ranching does anything, it teach­es you patience. After 30 years of marriage, we are still learning that.”

Any rancher will tell you that the learning process is constant, and for first-time ranchers, each day brings new challenges. They have learned about breeding techniques, soil health, branding, and the role of cover crops for fall and winter grazing. Some tasks like branding are a family affair, but Mark and Tammy are the heart and soul of the operation. They both expected their lives would change with the transition, but neither one could have imagined what would come next. Tammy has undergone mammograms for years. In 2006/2007, doctors detected a lump in her right breast. Fast forward to July 2020, and the lump had grown by two millimeters. The growth prompted doctors to schedule a biopsy. In March of this year, Tammy was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. In 2021 it is estimated 281,550 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women in the U.S. “When I got the diagnosis, it was a shock; it was a hit,” said Tammy. “By the time I had the results, I had worked through and already processed a lot. Literally, within an hour of finding out I had breast cancer, I contacted a provider friend. I was resolute in what I was going to do. I was called back for so many ultrasounds that I told Mark if it happens, I am having a mastectomy.”

Eighty-five percent of breast cancers occur in women who have no family history of breast cancer. This was true in Tammy’s case. She underwent genetic testing after her brother was diagnosed with cancer. Tammy’s brother would lose his battle with cancer this year, which was devastating to the family. Tammy’s process from diagnosis to treatment happened very quickly. “Once you have a diagnosis and treatment, they like to have it all occur within a six-week window.” The following weeks were met with a barrage of appointments and preparation for surgery. “I had the mindset that when my doctors told me to worry, I would worry. I didn’t lay awake at night worrying. I had faith in my providers.”

Tammy had the mastectomy in Bozeman. The recovery took about six weeks. In mid- September, Tammy underwent a successful reconstruction and is back on the ranch recovering. To her relief, cancer has not spread to her lymph nodes. And fortunately, she is not a candidate for chemotherapy at this time. She will be on a five-year treatment of hormone blockers to prevent reoccurrence.

Mark and Tammy moved forward during the diagnosis and treatment, busy with ranch life learning by trial and error. NRCS has helped them learn about soil health and a few practices to implement to enhance the soil with rotational grazing and cover crops. They incorporated corn into the grazing rotation and learned it’s best to mix the cover crop with hay and native forage.”We are first-time, first-year, first-generation ranchers. I recommend seeking out mentors in the industry and building a relationship with your veterinarian. Seek, listen and use their advice for herd health. Those relationships are invaluable. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

Mark works sun up to sun down, building the property’s infrastructure. Tammy continues to recover from surgery and manages the day-to-day administrative duties until she can be working the land with Mark. They have their sights set on passing down the ranch to their daughters.“You always want the next generation to have this, and it is our dream to make that happen.”

Tammy has chronicled both her journey with breast cancer and ranching fearlessly on the 12MT Ranch Facebook page.”The parallels of the ranch and the cancer are certainly there. I didn’t worry as much about cancer because when you build a ranch from the ground up, you have a whole lot of things to think about and do.”

Tammy has an oncologist at Sletten Cancer Institute in Havre and has been very impressed with the level of care. She says one key to her recovery was communicating with all her providers through the online patient portal. “Access to rural healthcare can be challenging, but no matter your zip code, make your health a priority. October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As much as mammograms are a pain in the rear for every woman, it’s the whole reason I am here.”

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