JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii — “You have cancer.” The three words no one, no matter their age, wants to hear. I happened to receive these words at the age of 29.
Though I knew from the moment I found the lump in my breast it was cancer, I was in no way prepared to hear those words Oct. 4, 2013, — the day that forever changed my life.
Breast cancer runs in my family. Both my mother and her sister are breast cancer survivors. My grandmother survived both breast and ovarian cancers, but sadly succumbed to brain cancer.
With such a high risk of cancer in my family, I’ve always been super conscious about this issue. I found the lump while conducting a routine breast self-examination.
When found, my lump was the size of a pea. By the time I had surgery three months later, it had grown to just smaller than the size of a lime. Because the lump was fairly small (by cancer standards) and found early, and the cancer hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes, I was diagnosed as Stage 2a.
On the day of diagnosis, I also found out I have the BRCA1 gene, which puts me at an even higher risk for breast and ovarian cancers.
Because of family history and this cancer gene, I decided to have a bilateral mastectomy. For me, the surgery wasn’t that bad, and I didn’t have much pain once the drains were taken out a week after surgery. The worst part was not feeling like a woman anymore because of the removal of certain body parts, something I’m still struggling with today.
In January 2014, I began the process of chemotherapy. Let me tell you, it was not fun! On the night of my very first treatment, I sat on the floor of the bedroom in front of a trash can, rocking back and forth trying not to throw up, feeling like I was dying and calling out for my mommy. My poor dog was lying on the bed with a pitiful look of terror, because he had no idea what was going on.
After the first treatment, I cut my hair short in preparation for it falling out, and because my head ached like needles were being stabbed into my scalp. After the second treatment, my hair did start falling out. I could literally run my hands through my hair and clumps would be in-between my fingers.
During the five months of chemo, I never felt as bad as that first night, but the nausea stuck around and drugs never fully helped the queasiness go away. In fact, the only thing I could find to help my nausea was eating, and thankfully, I never had issues with food tasting like metal, as so many chemo patients do. However, because food was the only remedy that helped my nausea, I gained weight. The five months of steroids didn’t help either.
Throughout eight treatments of chemo, I went through a cycle of feeling like crap during “chemo week,” then starting to feel better the next week only to shock my body with a treatment, starting the process over again. The further along in my treatments I got, the fewer “good days” I had.
I finished chemotherapy May 9, 2014, and started the process of reconstruction in September. Though the big fight is over, I still have the fight of getting back in shape and losing the weight I gained as a result of the drugs. This will help me pass my physical fitness test and not lose the technical sergeant stripe I was selected for.
When I found out I had cancer, I was left with a couple of decisions. First, do I stay in the Air Force or get out? That decision was easy to make; I love the Air Force and my job and knew I wanted to stay in. Second, do I stay in England, go back to the U.S. to be treated at Walter Reid, or fly home to Hawaii where my parents lived and be treated at Tripler Army Medical Center? This was a tougher decision.
I loved being in England and the “family” I had there, however, nothing could come close to being with my parents, who I knew I would need. I eventually went with the Hawaii option, and my leadership in England worked very hard to get me here, despite the government shutdown going on at the time. And really, who doesn’t want to go through something like this on a beautiful, tropical island?
Having living proof of a breast cancer survivor in front of me, I was able to draw comfort from my mom, as she had gone through the experience about 11 years before at Tripler. My dad was my constant companion throughout chemo; he took me to every treatment and kept me company. By my side to cuddle with me after each treatment was my trusted dog, Captain Jack Sparrow. I really could not have survived chemo without him!
Throughout the whole experience, I have tried to remain positive; it’s part of who I am. I’m the type of person who always tries to find something to make me smile or crack jokes to lift the mood. I’m the type of person who finds that “silver lining” in life. I’m the type of person who doesn’t give up and keeps on fighting. It never occurred to me to be any other way. I never for one second thought I wasn’t going to survive cancer.
There’s no way I personally could have gone through this whole ordeal without my faith in God. God is the reason I was positive, and God gave me the strength to weather the storm.
As I reflect back on this past year, I’m thankful I can still wake up in the morning and go to work, hang out with friends and enjoy the company of my family. I’m a firm believer of the mantra, “Everything happens for a reason,” so I find it interesting that I was diagnosed with breast cancer during the month of October, which happens to be National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
As we move into this month, take the time to learn your family history and the risks and symptoms of breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, about one in eight women in the U.S. are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.
The National Cancer Institute states that five to 10 percent of breast cancer cases can be linked to gene mutations. For those who have the BRCA1 gene, the risk for breast cancer before age 70 is 55 to 65 percent; it’s 45 to 47 percent for BRCA2.
This is why early detection is key.
Johns Hopkins Medical reported, “40 percent of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump, so establishing a regular breast self-exam is very important.”
In order for self-exams to be useful, you should be familiar with your body, specifically in regards to look and feel. This will help alert you to any changes that could potentially be cancer.
Breast self-exams are only the beginning for early detection.
The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommends women 40 and older get a mammogram every one to two years, and women under 40 who have a family history of breast cancer should talk with their health care professional about screening.
According to the National Cancer Institute, “when breast cancer is detected early, the five-year survival rate is 98 percent.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m hopeful with these odds!
However, breast cancer isn’t limited to women. According to the American Cancer Society, the lifetime risk for men in the U.S. to develop breast cancer is one in 1,000. The organization also estimated more than 2,000 men were diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2011.
From the moment the words were uttered, I never had a doubt I wouldn’t survive and come out the other side winning. I now join the estimated 2.8 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S. I am a survivor!