Face of Defense: Airman Shows Resilience in Cancer Battle
TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --
“You have Stage-2 unfavorable Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”
Those were the words Air Force Staff Sgt. Teresa Monteon heard her doctor say on Oct. 19, 2015. The weight of those words hit her hard and she cried.
“I was scared,” Monteon said. “My whole world just shifted. I was so excited to come to Travis and work in the intensive care unit. It was a great chance for me to be a medic and I was looking forward to testing my skills and facing new challenges. When the doctor said that, I felt like my whole world was pulled from me.”
Monteon, a medic from San Jose, California, joined the Air Force in January 2010 and arrived at Travis Air Force Base, California, in May 2015. She was assigned to work in the ICU at David Grant U.S. Air Force Medical Center. However, she discovered a lump on the left side of her neck in August 2015 that would change everything.
“It was probably the size of a golf ball and egg combined," she said. “I thought it could be cancer.”
One week later, Monteon was evaluated by her primary care manager, who referred her to a specialist in the medical center’s general surgery office.
He thought it was probably a clogged lymph node and instructed Monteon to apply a warm compress to it and come back in a month, she said. A month later, she returned and the lump was the same size.
Monteon was referred to the radiology clinic for a CT scan. After the scan was conducted, she said she knew something wasn’t right after seeing the looks on the technicians’ faces.
‘I Knew Something Was Wrong’
“I know that face -- that ‘something’s wrong’ face,” she said. “All medics have it when we see something scary. I knew something was wrong.”
The following week, Monteon was scheduled for a biopsy, a procedure where a sample of tissue is taken from the body to examine it more closely.
The results were shocking to hear.
“The interventional radiology surgeon said, ‘I hate to be the one to tell you this, but I’m 90-percent sure it’s Hodgkin’s lymphoma,’” Monteon said. “I was shocked. I didn’t know how to process that information.”
Hearing those words felt like being slammed in the face, she said.
Additional testing confirmed Monteon had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. This form of cancer causes cells to grow abnormally, which could lead to cancerous cells spreading to other parts of the body. As the disease progresses, it compromises the body’s ability to fight infection.
Air Force Master Sgt. Jennifer Mitchell, now the 343rd Reconnaissance Squadron’s first sergeant at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, was working as the ICU flight chief on the day Monteon received her diagnosis.
“One of the nurses called me and said, ‘We need you to come downstairs right away,’” Mitchell recalled. “I ran down the stairs and Monteon was on the bed crying. The doctor confirmed she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I know for her it was devastating, and I felt the same way. To see such a young person go through cancer knowing how difficult that would be … to know she was going to have to go through that just broke my heart.”
Tests revealed cancerous tumors on the left side of Monteon’s neck and chest above her heart. She began chemotherapy on Oct. 26, 2015. The treatments took a profound effect on her, both physically and mentally.
“I was extremely nauseous and tired instantly after the first treatment and I had treatments every two weeks,” Monteon said. “That first week after two or three days, my body was really heavy, I had immense fatigue. It’s not like you can sleep and be better. You’re just always tired. I lost all energy. Even getting dressed was difficult.”
Monteon also experienced blisters in her mouth, as well as severe bone and jaw pain.
An avid runner and hiker prior to her diagnosis, she shared what it felt like not being able to do the things she loved.
“I would get so winded just trying to walk around my apartment complex,” she said. “I cried because I couldn’t walk as far as I did before I got sick. It was so frustrating because I couldn’t run or train.”
At one point, Monteon wondered if she should even wear the Air Force uniform.
“When I was bald, people would stare and I felt like people were taking pity on me and I hated that feeling because I didn’t want pity,” she said. “I have an image in my head of what it means to wear the [Air Force] uniform. It means you’re doing well in life; you’re healthy and able to contribute to the mission. I didn’t feel like I should’ve been wearing [the uniform] because I was so sick.”
Monteon added, “It was so hard for me to come into work and put a smile on my face because I felt like I didn’t represent the image the Air Force should uphold.”
While Monteon battled through this difficult time, she said her friends and Air Force family supported her in several ways.
Mitchell attended every one of Monteon’s chemo treatments, checked on her while she was hospitalized with an intestinal infection and even went grocery shopping for her.
Friends Provide Support
“She needed support -- physically and mentally. And she needed to know she wasn’t alone,” Mitchell said. “I’m a huge believer in people always come first. Her health and getting her through those difficult days was the No. 1 priority. Some days, I had to give some tough love and ensure she took in fluids and ate. Other times, I made her laugh or simply held her hand.”
While Monteon was hospitalized for nine days due to neutropenic enterocolitis, an acute life-threatening condition, she was on a strict diet of clear fluids. Mitchell provided the staff sergeant with a reason to laugh.
Monteon was eating popsicles and she threw up after she ate a lot of them, Mitchell recalled.
“At least it smells good,” Mitchell recalled telling Monteon. “It smelled like grape popsicles. Just making her laugh, holding her hand and just being there for her for whatever she needed was the most important thing. I wanted to take her pain away, but unfortunately, I couldn’t.”
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Krystal Foster, the 60th Diagnostics and Therapeutics Squadron’s noncommissioned officer in charge of patient tray services and one of Monteon’s friends, visited her often.
“I cooked for her, brought her food, played video games with her, joined her for walks and even spent the first night of her hospitalization with her,” Foster said. “Whatever she needed, I was there.”
Foster said she’s proud of how her friend faced each day.
“She never gave up and she was always smiling,” Foster said. “Even when she lost her hair, she didn’t let anyone know that it bothered her. She had the strength to endure and push through everything.”
Monteon underwent four months of chemotherapy, receiving her last treatment on Feb. 16, 2016. She also underwent a month of proton therapy, a form of radiation treatment, in San Diego.
On April 25, 2016, her oncologist told her she was in remission, she said. While she is aware cancer could return to her body, Monteon is wasting no time living the life she loves.
In November 2016, she traveled to St. Lucia, an island nation in the eastern Caribbean Sea for six days. While there, she went zip-lining, kayaking, hiking, snorkeling and bathed in volcanic mud.
She also ran her first Reebok Spartan Race that month in Sacramento, California. Spartan races are endurance events ranging in distance from 3 to 14 miles. During a race, participants are required to overcome between 20 and 35 obstacles.
“Running is how I de-stress and relax,” Monteon said. “Going from being barely able to go up my stairs to running 4.3 miles while overcoming obstacles and challenging myself again felt amazing.”
Monteon has also completed Spartan races in Monterey and San Jose, California, and she is planning trips to Australia and Italy.
She said her cancer battle taught her a valuable life lesson, one she wants to share with her fellow airmen.
“The biggest take away for me, is knowing there’s going to be adversity and challenges in life, but what matters is getting yourself back up,” she said. “Whatever challenge you’re facing, it’s likely for a very short period in your life and there’s so much out there to experience.”
Monteon added, “Airmen need to know there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. If you’re stressed, get outside of your head and try something fun. Think positively. If you believe and say ‘I’ll get better,’ you will. You have the power within yourself to make your life better.”