Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Hitting home

By Airman 1st Class Alexandria Mosness: 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. — Do you remember the time you realized your parents weren’t invincible? Can you recall how you felt?

Dread, fear and shock are a few things I remember as I stared at my mother sobbing after her double mastectomy surgery, the removal of both breasts and tissue.

My feet were frozen to the ground. I looked upon my mother, the strong woman who would never be defeated, as she cried in my father’s arm about losing a piece of herself that cancer had taken away.

My hero was first diagnosed with breast cancer at age 28 — as a young woman raising me and my two siblings. She was a dedicated airman and was fighting for her life before she was 30 years old.

Cancer is not something you expect or plan for in life, and it does not discriminate. It knows no race, age or gender boundaries.

According to breastcancer.org, all women are at risk for breast cancer and even a small population of men, about 1,900 will be diagnosed. The risk increases with age and about one out of every seven women will get breast cancer over a 90-year life span.

As stifling as these realities can seem, there are also many myths that people need to understand. Breast cancer does not just affect older women. In fact, breast cancer can occur at any age. You can get breast cancer even if it does not run in your family. About 80 percent of women who get breast cancer have no known family history of the disease.

Being young, I was not quite aware of what my mother was going through. I thought the head scarves she was wearing were a new fashion choice, and I was happy. As a 5-year-old, not much else matters. Looking back, I can only imagine the fear and uncertainty she went through every day, but she managed to put on a strong front for her family.

The Air Force paid for her chemotherapy treatment at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. I thought of it as a fun adventure my mom and I were taking together. I didn’t know she was battling for her life. My mother ended up getting a lumpectomy, the surgical removal of a breast cyst or tumor, chemotherapy and radiation.

Although it was a tough journey and she beat the cancer, it took its toll. She ended up getting out of Air Force, going to nursing school and having another child. She was on track with life when cancer came tumbling back. At age 41, she was diagnosed with breast cancer for a second time.

I was a sophomore in high school when she was diagnosed again. More aware than I was before, I was scared for my mother’s life. I presented a strong front to everyone, but inside the question always came up, “What if?”

I could not imagine life without the woman I admired so much. I put away those feelings, and I went on to battle this disease with her. From feeling tired from hours of chemotherapy, to making her dinner in bed, even when the chemo had burnt off her taste buds to where she could not taste anything, I was there day and night for her.

While the first time I didn’t know what the head scarves were for, this time I was vividly aware. One afternoon when she was so tired of the patches in her hair, she told my Dad to just shave the rest off. I stood there helpless as my Dad shaved her head, and Mom tried to make jokes to be strong for us, but I know she must have been devastated.

For the second time, my hero fought for her life. I remember my father and mother gathering my siblings and myself in the living room for “the talk.”

She said, “Do not worry. I’m a fighter. I’m not going anywhere.”

I remember trying to hold back the tears, and the silence among my family was unbearable. But I believed what she said, and knew I would have to be strong for her.

My mother is a fighter, and while breast cancer is a scary disease, it is not a death sentence. So, a long battle ensued with a double mastectomy, ovary removal, reconstruction surgery, along with many problems that ensued from the reconstruction surgeries. The process took about four years from start to finish.

Every day, I continue to look at this woman who stands in front of me in awe, as I do with anyone who has survived this awful disease.

Today, my mother is a big advocate for breast cancer awareness. From participating in events aimed at supporting cancer research, to sponsoring those going through the horrible cancer experience, she does it all, just so everyone can raise awareness.

And now, I stand in full circle of my mother, as an adult woman in the Air Force. But this time I have an advantage, because I know the odds against me.

For those worried about this or any cancer, early detection is the key to prevention.

Women must remember to do monthly self breast exams. For women 40 and over, schedule your annual mammograms, or if you have a history of breast cancer, make sure to talk with your doctor.

Each year, more than 200,000 women will be diagnosed and more than 40,000 will succumb to their battle with breast cancer.

As we celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness Month and help to raise awareness about this disease, we celebrate the millions of survivors who defeated it and honor those who lost their lives to the battle.

I understand my risks for getting breast cancer, and although it scares me a little, I continue to live my life to the fullest. I will not let the fear of cancer cripple me.

Like my mother, I will continue to bring awareness, and if I am diagnosed, I will be a fighter just like her — my hero.