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Face of Defense: Soldier Beats Breast Cancer With Early Detection

By Air Force Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke
Special to American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., Oct. 22, 2009 – A California Army National Guard supply noncommissioned officer diagnosed with breast cancer is cancer-free today, and she credits early detection with her new lease on life.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
California Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Cowie credits early detection with remaining cancer-free two years after being diagnosed with breast cancer. U.S. Army photo
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

With a yearlong deployment right around the corner when she got her diagnosis, Army Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Cowie opted for an aggressive treatment plan that would get her back to her unit quickly.

“As soon as people hear the word ‘cancer,’ they have the worst thought in mind,” Cowie said. “That’s really not the case these days. There are treatments available, and with early detection, everything can happen with a little better outcome. So, early detection is really the key.”

Her gamble paid off.

“I went from diagnosis to cancer-free in 30 days, with very little interruption in my life,” Cowie said. She deployed with her unit to Kuwait in 2007, and since that time has followed up every six months to ensure she’s still OK.

During pre-mobilization training at Camp Atterbury, Ind., Cowie had an ultrasound after something was spotted on her mammogram. Through the Tricare military health care plan, she found a breast care specialist in Indianapolis, who did a biopsy. Three days later, she found out that she had Stage 0 breast cancer, “which is very, very early,” Cowie said.

The specialist said breast cancer usually is caught at Stage 2 or 3. “I thanked my lucky stars that someone looked close enough at the mammogram,” Cowie said.

Once diagnosed, Cowie discussed her timeline with her surgeon and oncologist. Her unit would be leaving Camp Atterbury in 30 days.

The doctors explained the options available to her, which included a new treatment available “that I was a good candidate for,” Cowie said. MammoSite is a five-day targeted radiation therapy that uses a high daily dose of radiation.

“So, that is what I chose to do,” Cowie said. “I was really committed to my deployment, being so far into the training. It was not an option for me personally to back out and say, ‘Hey, I have to go home.’ I made a commitment to these troops and to this unit to see this through as long as the military would let me.”

Cowie was treated twice a day for 15 to 20 minutes for five days. “It was pretty aggressive, but … I consider myself pretty lucky to have caught it so early,” she said. “I am a perfect example of [early detection].”

Throughout her ordeal, Cowie said, she was supported by her biological family and her Guard family.

“My family understands my dedication to duty,” she said. “But the call to Mom was a little scary for me. I put it off until I absolutely had to. I didn’t want them to worry. They are already worrying that I’m deploying, so now I had to give them something else to worry about.”

Cowie said her family offered support and didn’t get overly emotional. “That was the support that I really needed, because I wanted to stay focused. I didn’t want to go into the negative thoughts. … I just couldn’t go there.”

With her Guard family, it was a little different. Cowie’s commander and first sergeant were men. “It was a little tricky at first,” she said, “but they were so great.”

After explaining her situation, Cowie said, her Guard leaders told her it was her decision and that they would support her either way. “I thought about it for two seconds, and said, ‘I’m staying,’” she recalled. “They were a big, big help to me.”

The hardest part was continuing to lead her soldiers, Cowie said. “As an NCO, you always have to lead from the front. With this, that’s a little difficult. There were days that were a little harder for me. But I knew my soldiers looked up to me. I had to make sure that I was still [there] for my soldiers, and at the same time still taking care of myself.”

Cowie, who is a 15-year veteran of the Army Reserve and the Army Guard, said the experience gave her a greater appreciation for the research being done to cure all forms of cancer. “Little did I know how much new treatments would mean to my life,” she said.

Throughout her battle, Cowie was in contact with her surgeon and oncologist every day.

“I was committed to making this happen,” she said. “The whole team knew what our end goal was.” Being cancer free was paramount, she added, “but also to not totally lose what I had going on with the deployment.”

Cowie said she knew she may have to follow the unit later if she wasn’t able to stick to the timeline, but that she had no other doubts about the path she chose.

“When things fall into place, you have to believe that someone is out there watching out for you, and that there is a plan ahead of you and you are on the right course,” she said.

(Air Force Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke serves at the National Guard Bureau.)

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