Van E. Harl
BREAST CANCER, THE MILITARY, THE VETERAN
It was July in San Antonio, Texas and the temperature was in the high 90s. I was a young 2nd Lieutenant in training at the Air Force, Officer Training School (OTS), Lackland Air Force Base.
In those days OTS was twelve long and very stressful weeks. Air Force basic training for a new enlistee was six weeks. For a new Airman to make it successfully through “basic” they had to keep their mouth closed and follow directions to the letter.
OTS was different, for the most part no one was yelling at you to get your tasks accomplished. You were told what you needed to accomplish and you as a future Officer moved out smartly to get the job done. They always piled on more requirements than you had time to complete. “Created stress”, was what the big Air Force was trying to force on us to work and learn under. They were very good at applying the pressure.
In amidst of my first three weeks at OTS I was directed to report for a physical. During the medical exam the doctor found a lump in my left breast. Within hours I was in the office of an Air Force surgeon, who had made the decision to do breast surgery on me that afternoon. He told me if I was a woman, he would first draw fluid for the lump. Down the road he would do a biopsy and then at some later date make the decision about surgery. But, in his words “since you’re a man we will operate today.”
I did not know anything about breast cancer other than women get it and die. That afternoon I was laying on my back on an operating table (not even being allowed to take off my new GI shoes) having my left breast shot-up with Novocain and a scalpel cutting down into my chest. They found two ugly looking lumps. A second surgeon came in and stated “I have never seen anything like that before (in reference to the lumps).
I am wide-awake looking up telling myself, “I am going to die.” Then they sewed me up, told me to put my shirt on, and sent me back to my OTS classroom as if I just had a tooth filled. Talk about a new stress factor. I was advised a biopsy was going to be preformed and there would be a two-week delay in getting the lab results to me. But I was suppose to “soldier-on” in my officer training as if nothing out of the ordinary was impacting my life or future possible loss of that life.
What the Air Force doctor never told and I did not find out until years later, was men have an approximate 95% mortality rate when diagnosed with breast cancer. Apparently by the time it is discovered in men, the cancer is already in the chest wall and removing the small amount of male breast tissue just does not stop the cancer. I was lucky, the lab work came back negative, and twenty-five years later I am still here.
One of my fellow flight members worked hard to keep my spirits up during those two weeks of not knowing. I would call my wife back in Chicago and talk to her for a while, then I would go find Lisa and she would try to cheer me up. Of the twenty graduating members of my flight at OTS, Lisa is the only one I stayed in contact with over the years. We lost touch a few years ago. Our two military families’ were and still are constantly on the move.
Through a third party I found out where Lisa was stationed. She is still in the Air Force; however the first thing that was reported to me about my old friend is that she is fighting her own battle with breast cancer. She had surgery and has undergone follow up treatment. My wife had just been telling me about an Air Force nurse who had recently died because of an incorrect reading of a Mammogram.
When I tracked Lisa down, she started telling me about her breast cancer and her similar story. Somehow early detection from a mammogram was missed. But the positive thing is, after her surgery and treatment she is doing well, with a good prognosis. Unfortunately she has dropped her papers and is going to retire from the Air Force. Conflicts with new assignments and continued medical treatment have pretty much driven the decision to retire. Lisa was one of the Air Force’s “fast burners” and no doubt had many more outstanding productive years of service to offer her country.
After my scare with breast cancer over 25 years ago I try to stay up on this health issue. Early detection is the best offense in this battle. Most of the victims of this medical war are our women, but in some years as many as 900 men die of breast cancer in the US.
Veterans, if you have a concern about breast cancer get in contact with the VA. Of the approximate 556,500 cancer deaths (all types of cancer) in the US in 2003, it is estimated that 175,000 of those deaths were veteran cancer patients. The VA is prepared to help and has made major strives in the improvement of health care for our female veterans. There is a new Veterans’ Health Administration National Directive, 2003-034, that was established too greatly enhance the medical treatment of veteran cancer patients.
For the most comprehensive information go to the Veterans Affairs Web Site. For general VA Benefit information call 1-800-827-1000. For breast cancer information, call the VA Mammography Help Line on 1-888-492-7844. This is one battle that our veterans can not afford to loose.
©Copyright April 17, 2004 by Van E. Harl