Face of Defense: Breast Cancer Survivor Describes Her Battle
By Air Force Airman 1st Class Chacarra Walker
American Forces Press Service
CHARLESTON, S.C., Oct. 25, 2012 Air Force Senior Airman Latisha Chong was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer Jan. 19. Two weeks later, the same doctor who discovered her breast cancer told her she also had Hodgkin lymphoma.
Breast cancer survivor Air Force Senior Airman Latisha Chong runs in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Charleston, S.C., Oct. 20, 2012. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Rasheen A. Douglas
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"I was 21 years old and didn't think I was strong enough to beat two cancers. I thought my life was over," said Chong, a flight kitchen specialist assigned to the 628th Force Support Squadron at Joint Base Charleston.
Chong had just returned from a six-month deployment to Southwest Asia when she noticed two lumps in her breasts and immediately knew something was wrong. Her doctors diagnosed the two lumps as cancerous tumors.
"I immediately called my mom," she said. "Even though it was her birthday, she needed to know the bad news."
Chong's mother, Darlene Vincent, originally from Trinidad, was living in Brooklyn, N.Y., when her daughter broke the news.
"It was heartbreaking," Vincent said. "I knew Latisha needed my support, so I packed up and moved to Charleston."
The next person Chong called was her supervisor, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Christian Farin, the flight kitchen’s noncommissioned officer in charge. Chong said Farin was someone who always was available to listen and help with her problems.
"This was the first time I've ever experienced an airman coming to me with this type of news," Farin said. "I didn't know what to say. I really couldn't believe it." He said he tried to put Chong's mind at ease by letting her know she had not only his support, but also the support of the entire squadron.
Chong was facing five months of chemotherapy followed by radiation to stop the growth of the tumors in her breasts and to treat her Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer that starts in cells called lymphocytes, which are part of the body's immune system.
On top of it all, Chong still had to take care of her 2-year-old son, Malachi.
"Since my immune system was weak, any time Malachi showed even the slightest signs of a cold or any other illness, I would have to stay away from him," Chong said. "The thing that kept me grounded the most was praying. You have to believe in something. That's how I stayed positive."
Chong’s squadron leadership team ensured Malachi was enrolled in the base child development center. This gave her a bit of time for herself and time to focus on defeating the cancers that were spreading throughout her body.
"Raising a child alone is hard, but raising a child while battling two cancers is overwhelming," Chong said.
When Malachi wasn't at the child development center, the airman's mother would help out while Chong was going through chemotherapy and radiation.
The treatments began to take their toll. Chong said the chemotherapy made her constantly feel as if she had the flu, and the radiation caused fatigue and night sweats.
"Going through chemotherapy made me feel extremely cold," she said. "When I went out in public, even though it was summer, I had on sweats, boots, a jacket, a scarf, and on top of everything else, I wore a mask. People looked at me as if I wasn't human."
Wanting to understand what Chong was going through, Farin decided to spend a day with her to get a better understanding of how he could help.
"It didn't really hit me until I saw her without hair," he said. "I took leave for a day and watched Chong go through an entire session of chemotherapy. I don't know what I would have done if I was in her shoes."
Chong wore a wig while going through chemotherapy.
"After a while I couldn't take it any more," she said. "Once the physical changes started to become noticeable, I wanted to stand out less in public. A wig helped."
Besides losing her hair, Chong dealt with fluctuating weight.
"The different stages of treatment caused me to either lose or gain extreme amounts of weight," she said. "I was going through a lot at such a young age."
After five grueling months of chemotherapy, Chong had made it over the mountain and was ready for radiation, followed by surgery.
"When I graduated from chemotherapy, so many people from my squadron showed up, even the hospital staff was shocked," she said. "They had to make room for everybody and the other patients. That's when I realized what true wingmen are."
On June 19, Chong's doctors told her she was cancer-free. Because her mother already was with her, she said, her first call was to her supervisor.
"Every time she called me [previously], she told me bad news," Farin said. "But this time, I could tell in her voice it was good."
In September, Chong was finished with radiation and prepared for surgery. Nervous and excited to be having the tumors in her breasts removed, Chong slipped into unconsciousness as the anesthesia overtook her.
"When it was time for surgery, I prayed," she said. "I prayed that everything would go as planned and that I would make it out safely."
Even though Chong was cancer-free, she would still need to go through another 33 rounds of chemotherapy to ensure the cancer did not return, and she wanted to know when she could go back to work.
"I was ready to get back to Services, where I help people, because that's what we do," she. "The best part about my job is the people."
Chong is scheduled to return to work at the end of this year. She has had five of seven reconstructive surgeries so far for new breasts.
While Chong was going through chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Antonia Williams of the 628th Force Support Squadron put together a team to run in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure here in Chong’s honor Oct. 20.
"I met Latisha at the fitness center a couple weeks after arriving in Charleston," Williams said. "She came in and everyone started talking to her. She wasn't in uniform, and I had never seen her before, so I asked her about her situation.
"Talking to Latisha was so inspirational. … She was so positive," Williams continued. "I had only known her for a few weeks, but I knew I wanted to make a difference in her life and do something special for her."
Williams put together a team of more than 50 runners and set a goal of $1,000 in donations. The team exceeded the goal by more than $700.
"I'm very happy about the run,” Chong said. “It shows people care."