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Monday, September 27, 2021

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360
Tammy Blackburn (left) announcing a women's basketball game for Pac-12 Networks. (Credit: Pac-12 Networks) Tammy Blackburn (left) announcing a women's basketball game for Pac-12 Networks. (Credit: Pac-12 Networks)
 


Heart of a Champion

Tammy Blackburn is director of Development Technology for SDSU Alumni, a double alumna (’94, ’01) and a long-time donor to SDSU.
By Coleen L. Geraghty
 

“Everything I saw in Tammy as a player was there in her fight with cancer. She has a tremendous attitude and outlook on life, and I’m so proud of all she’s accomplished as an athlete and a person.”

This story appears in the fall 2018 issue of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University.

The adult heart is roughly the size of a fist, weighs about 11 ounces and pulses at 60-100 beats per minute. That’s the average heart, but certain human hearts are different. Tammy Blackburn’s is stronger than most and more resilient. She has the heart of a champion athlete and a cancer survivor. 

Blackburn’s long and arduous battle with cancer lasted nearly a year. After the initial shock of the diagnosis, she asked—as most people do—“why me?” The eventual answer was no surprise to anyone who knows Blackburn. “I was meant to do something with this.” Immediately, her thoughts turned to the San Diego State University community.  

Blackburn is director of Development Technology for SDSU Alumni, a double alumna (’94, ’01) and a long-time donor to SDSU. The university recruited her, and she became a standout guard for the women’s basketball team in the 1990s. Her legendary positive attitude inspired SDSU to create the Tammy Blackburn Award, given annually to the student-athlete who epitomizes loyalty, effort, athletic prowess and team spirit. 

As Blackburn underwent treatment, she began to wonder if there was an unmet need among SDSU students affected by cancer. When financial aid administrators confirmed her suspicions, she settled on a name for what she would create—the Wallace Shatsky Blackburn Courage Through Cancer Fund.  

Surgeon Anne Wallace and oncologist Rebecca Shatsky treated Blackburn during chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. “They saved my life,” Blackburn said. “Working on this fund, named for them and directed to SDSU students, has been a giant healing step—psychologically and emotionally.”

A tremendous attitude

The cancer diagnosis was not Blackburn’s first match with adversity. As a basketball star at Brea Olinda High School, she underwent surgery to correct a curvature of the spine. Regaining her confidence was difficult, she said later, but she persevered, and the Wildcats went on to win the California State Championship. Mark Trakh, her high school coach, is now head coach of the women’s squad at the University of Southern California (USC). 

“Everything I saw in Tammy as a player was there in her fight with cancer,” Trakh said. “She has a tremendous attitude and outlook on life, and I’m so proud of all she’s accomplished as an athlete and a person.”

Blackburn is something of a celebrity in the collegiate basketball world as a sports broadcaster for CBS Sports, ESPN, and the Pac-12 Network. Even after she lost her hair to the chemo, she went on television bald. That kind of courage inspired many Pac-12 teams to honor her during the 2017-18 season. At game after game, Blackburn shifted the focus away from herself and toward affirmation and support for others. 

Mark Mays (’69), a cornerstone donor to the Wallace Shatsky Blackburn Courage Through Cancer Fund, recalled Blackburn’s support of his late wife, Karen, during her battle with cancer. 

“Tammy is a positive person, a doer,” Mays said. “Like Karen, she is an extraordinary girl put on this earth to…unconsciously spread goodness. How many people do that?”


First recipient

The Wallace Shatsky Blackburn Courage Through Cancer Fund is already spreading goodness on the SDSU campus. Blackburn worked with Rose Pasanelli, director of Financial Aid and Scholarships, to identify the first recipient—sophomore Cameron McCullough

McCullough’s mom, his sole support, had been forced to quit her job as a clinical research associate after a stage 4 cancer diagnosis. His part-time work at Home Depot helped, but couldn’t cover tuition payments. McCullough thought he would have to leave SDSU.   

That was before Blackburn visited him and his mom in August. She told them the new fund would pay his debts from last year plus a portion of his tuition, a meal plan and books for this fall. If McCullough maintains his strong academic performance, he’ll continue to be eligible for assistance.

Until now, Blackburn has worked with SDSU to identify three other students who qualify for aid through the Wallace Shatsky Blackburn Courage Through Cancer Fund.