When Warriors Have to Battle Cancer, Too

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Senior Airman David Carbajal / U.S. Air Force

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Casi Soto lifts weights during the 2011 Barbells for Boobs breast-cancer fundraiser competition at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.

Women serving in combat roles not only have increased risk of injury and death during deployment, they are also more likely to encounter another battle on the homefront.

“While more than 800 women have been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, about the same number have been diagnosed with breast cancer,” according to the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center.

During the years 2000 to 2011, 874 military women took a hit from breast cancer. Radio emissions, chemical exposure, shift work and higher use of oral contraception have been identified as possible risk factors.

A former Marine told me about his own battle with the disease as we shared resources during a cancer conference. Although a man’s lifetime risk of breast cancer is about 1 in 1,000, compared to 1 in 8 for women, statistical odds were not in the favor of 82 men stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Peter Devereaux became an outspoken advocate for the group of Marines while still battling the disease, as it spread to his hips, ribs and spine. Contaminated water is suspected to be a culprit for those who were diagnosed, years after serving at Camp Lejeune.

Devereaux is a voice of encouragement to others in noting “cancer’s not an individual sport, it’s a team sport.” Although I haven’t spoken with the former Marine since meeting him a few years back, his strong mindset and remarkable attitude stand out in my mind, as well as in the media. Family and friends who rally around the home-front make it easier, and possible, to get through it.

The desire to make a difference often continues beyond a family member’s battle with cancer. Recently, Colonel Denton Knapp surpassed his goal to raise $500 in the fight against cancer – while deployed in Afghanistan. Knapp joined Team Martina in raising funds for the new Martina McBride breast cancer research grant, alongside the T.J. Martell Foundation.

More than $40,000 has been raised for the research grant assigned to the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. Knapp dedicated his efforts to his uncle who died from cancer last year. It’s understandable that people are eager to participate in finding a cure, with cancer being the 2nd leading cause of death in the United States.

Yet, significant progress is being made in the treatment of cancer with earlier diagnoses, targeted therapies, and surgical advances. There are more than 12 million survivors in the United States alone. Military children are among those rallying against cancer – and those battling cancer. For the Riker family, “the military takes care of its own” is more than a cliché. It’s a fact of life. Staff Sergeant Rick Riker’s multiple deployments with his unit at Florida’s Hurlburt Field were put on hold when his wife, Jennifer, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer.

Riker encourages other members to access their chain of command, from the first line supervisor on up, to get needed support. “Cancer changes your view of what’s important. The mission and promotions are important, but you need your family behind you. My family sacrificed during my four years of back-to-back deployments, and the military gave it back to us. Given a job change, I was able to support the mission and my family – from the home-front.”

Riker’s support system was tested beyond what most members experience when his son was diagnosed with leukemia, just three months after his wife’s cancer went into remission. Sebastian, now 10 years old and enduring the last phase of a 3.5 year treatment regimen, summed up the gift of their support system: “they take care of country and family. They’re really good folks and it’s really cool to be part of it.” Jennifer added that “while cancer is so horrible, we’ve had opportunities that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.”

Together with Pensacola’s Nemours Clinic of Sacred Heart Hospital and Training Wing Five at the nearby Naval Air Station, Whiting Field, sick children are afforded such opportunities. Sebastian was chosen for their “Pilot for a Day Program.” Equipped with flight suit, helmet, boots, mobility bag, squadron coins and celebration photographs, the 10-year old entered the cockpit for the experience of a lifetime.

Such occasional special treatment makes cancer treatment, including its troublesome side effects, more tolerable – no matter what your age. The military structure lends itself to providing a wealth of support for members and their families, coupled with an exemplary sense of honor, duty and commitment for the long-haul.

Maryann Makekau is an Air Force veteran, spouse of a retired member, and mother of two grown military children. She’s also the founder of Hope Matters and author of a series of books, including When Your Mom Has Cancer.