More than 3.8 million people in this country are survivors of breast cancer, but every 13 minutes, a woman will lose her life to it. Military spouses Victoria Warren and Shannon Summa and Air Force Master Sergeant Laura Speranza know this reality intimately. Though each has had a different breast cancer journey, they are all part of a community of fighters battling this disease in the military health system.
In early 2017, Victoria “Vicky” Warren, 64, wife of retired Marine Master Sergeant James Warren, made an appointment for a mammogram. She felt obligated since she had avoided the annually recommended procedure the two years prior.
After, she was asked to return to the office for a second mammogram.
“You don’t expect something like that to happen to you,” she said. “I thought they screwed up the picture.”
But that wasn’t the reason she was called back. After the second mammogram and a subsequent biopsy, Vicky was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. She began six-months of chemotherapy treatment. Though it was challenging, she said she felt lucky that it didn’t hit her too hard. “It was probably a 4 out of 10,” she added.
At first, Vicky received four drips, one after the other, and spent entire days in treatment. For a year, her appointments were every three months. She’s now approaching her first six-month appointment. After that, she’ll have appointments every two years, then every five years.
The fight has taken its toll on Vicky. She lost her hair and underwent multiple plastic surgeries as a result of removal of tumors. She said she found it interesting after losing her hair, that people noticed. “They don’t really stare, but they give a little more support, or acknowledge the struggle you’re going through.”
Vicky’s vivacious personality shines through with the thing she says is the most important advice to anyone suffering from cancer. “My advice is to have a good sense of humor,” she said, adding, “because if you don’t, you are not going to make it.”
But, a sense of humor wasn’t the only thing keeping Vicky going. “The care I’m receiving from WRNMMC’s Murtha Cancer Center is outstanding. It’s a first-class facility with top notch doctors and nurses. I know everyone feels that way, but I know that I have received the best care that is responsible for me being alive today and in the future,” she said.
“Nothing can prepare you for a cancer diagnosis,” Air Force Master Sergeant Laura Speranza, explained. “You don't have time to process your feelings. Things move so fast with appointments and treatment.” She was diagnosed in March 2018.
After a morning shower, Laura felt a lump in her breast. She called her duty station and made an appointment. She remembers being told that unless there was discharge or blood, it was probably nothing. Laura persisted and called WRNMMC. She was referred to the Breast Care Center for a mammogram for a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound. Soon after, she was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer.
The period before treatment was overwhelming. Laura said she felt “bombarded with information and suggestions from well-meaning people.” During this period, she met others at her treatment sessions and through activities offered to patients. It was the first time she bonded with other cancer patients.
Laura chose to begin her treatment with chemotherapy. She later had surgery and radiation. Her doctors told her some people breeze through chemotherapy, and Laura thought that because she was young and in good shape, she’d be fine. She was not.
Every day, she went through treatment in survival mode. “I didn’t feel like a brave warrior, even though those were the messages being sent to me by family, friends and society,” she said. Watching stories of patients thriving made Laura feel like a failure. They were climbing mountains, running marathons—but she couldn’t even get out of bed.
It wasn’t until her oncologist insisted that those survivors were uncommon outliers and that Laura was handling her journey like most survivors. She felt better but annoyed.
“I felt that society just wants to portray cancer and treatment as a minor obstacle,” she said, “and that everyone should be able to power through this experience.”
She decided to join the “Look Good, Feel Better” program, which brings in hair and make-up artists to help patients look and feel their best.
“Cancer can make you feel ugly inside and out,” she said. Even with no hair and gray skin, she puts on makeup the way she was taught in class, and, just for a moment, she “feels beautiful again.”
Laura said cancer has put everything in perspective. She has learned to “live in the moment, practice gratitude and be more compassionate.” Most of all, she said, she has learned to love life.
Taking charge of a situation is second nature to Shannon Summa, who met her husband, a member of the Navy, at a luau in Hawaii. After their marriage, she learned to take charge of herself and family through the many moves to duty stations around the world.
“My husband was at sea a lot,” she said. “I was home with three kids and in a foreign country for most of their young lives. You just take care of what needs to be taken care of, deal with the worry and fear later.”
This was a good blueprint for Shannon to follow when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. A routine mammogram showed questionable results. She returned for another, then a biopsy. A week later, it was confirmed: Shannon had breast cancer.
Treatment included lumpectomy instead of a mastectomy, and Shannon underwent chemotherapy and radiation. She began three-months of chemo one month after her lumpectomy and radiation about twenty days later. “I was very proactive,” said Shannon. “I wanted to get it all going so that I could move on with my life.”
Through this process, Shannon learned that she is tougher than she realized, and that cancer is just one of life’s many obstacles.
“I really think being a Navy wife had something to do with my toughness,” Shannon said. “I had brief moments of ‘Oh my God, I have cancer,’ but then you have to keep moving in a positive and pragmatic way, throw in some spiritual faith, and problems are easier to face.”
Shannon only has good things to say about her experience at WRNMMC. “From the beginning it was positive,” she said. One of the great things Shannon experienced was participating in the Look Good Feel Better Program, which she had learned about from orientation in the Oncology Department.
The program was “a safe place to be bald and have no eyelashes because all the participants had cancer, were confused about what to do with their new look, and a little self-conscious.”
Shannon said the program was fun, positive, friendly and a lot of laughs. “We were strangers but were there for each other because we understood—for the most part—what we were each going through. It was very worthwhile!”
These three women took on an enemy attacking them from the inside out. Their experiences were different, but they are united in their war against breast cancer. It is a fight that millions deal with every year, including other warfighters and their loved ones.
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Leonardo DRS is donating $10,000 to the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine (HJF) to support Look Good, Feel Better program in Bethesda, Maryland.
You can donate by visiting www.hjf.org/cancer.
Leonardo DRS is also hosting a wall honoring those fighting breast cancer at the AUSA conference on October 15, 2019. Attendees are invited to post a pink note on the wall with the name of someone they know who was diagnosed with breast cancer. For each note, Leonardo DRS will donate $10, up to $10,000 total, to HJF to support breast cancer research.