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“We have this:” An Air Force spouse’s defeat of breast cancer

Dawn Weiss Smith poses with her husband, Joseph. Smith is an Air Force spouse, mother of four and survived Stage Three breast cancer in 2010. (Courtesy photo)

Dawn Weiss Smith, 501st Combat Support Wing family member, poses with her husband, Joseph. Smith is an Air Force spouse, mother of four and survived Stage Three breast cancer in 2010. (Courtesy photo)

RAF ALCONBURY, England -- It's hard for me sometimes to remember when it actually first began.

I was a busy stay-at-home mom of four kids under 12. It was the summer of 2010 and my husband, Joseph, was deployed to Afghanistan. Our days were blurred between activities, snacks and the desperate pacing for a phone call. So many times his base went dark and I would go days without hearing his voice. I thought that radio silence would never end. I had a mammogram scheduled that I canceled twice because of various kid-related reasons. I had nothing to fear; I was only 39, and I had a perfectly good mammogram the year before.

I finally got everything arranged, drove an hour into Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. and got down to business. I was really surprised that by the time I got home. I had a message from Walter Reed asking me to come back. I couldn't imagine why but figured since I had just completed breastfeeding, there may be some type of calcium deposits showing up suspiciously. I called back and made the appointment for the following day.

When I showed up, there was an entirely different vibe in that room. I had a little bit more attention, a few more whispers, and full detail by the radiologist who I had only quickly and elusively seen the day before. Shortly following the mammogram, I was ushered into an ultrasound. Still somewhat oblivious to any daunting results, I asked for more information. The radiologist took me into his office. He said in 22 years of practice he knows better than to give a diagnosis without a biopsy, but he knew my husband was overseas and I had four kids at home and he wanted me to know that things didn't look good. I agreed to an immediate needle biopsy. I had to know and I knew I could make that drive home.

The results were pending but I think we all already knew that day. I braced myself and went home. I rehearsed my phone call to my husband a hundred times. I ran childcare scenarios, potential surgeries, I Googled...I couldn't sleep.

Two days later the colonel called and I got the news: two tumors, breast cancer, staging was coming but he suspected three.

The next two days were like a whirlwind of activity and I summoned the strength that only a military wife could do. I still hadn't heard from my husband, and because of the cancer’s advanced aging, I was scheduled for a double mastectomy a week later. I contacted the Red Cross to find my Joseph; he was out on a mission. By the time they got a hold of him, a helicopter was already en route to pick him up. He called me. What could I possibly say? He was going from one war zone to another. "We have this." he said through tears. "We have this."

My friends swooped in like the cavalry. Picking up kids, setting up meals… days and nights ran together. My husband arrived after three days of travel, barely awake, and we went to Walter Reed and spent the day trying to absorb what was happening. Radiation, chemotherapy, mastectomies – foreign words that only other people had to deal with. Confusion, devastation, mortality. It was overwhelming.

The cancer was too aggressive for a double mastectomy because the recovery would take too long and they wanted to start treatment right away. I had a single mastectomy, followed by a lymph node dissection. It had spread, so chemo would begin right away. I was diagnosed Her+, a Stage 3: Fancy talk for cancer on steroids. It uses its own blood supply to survive and it’s impervious to most chemo. I would begin an 11-month special chemotherapy infusion that would take away my hair, my memory, my energy. Joseph shaved his head, then he shaved mine. We were not letting cancer dictate anything anymore. It was the little things that kept me powerful. There wasn't a surgery, a doctor's visit, an infusion or treatment that he wasn't by my side the entire time.

Following chemo I began five weeks of radiation. I kept my eye on the ball. I was surviving. Dying was not an option, no matter how grueling my days were. My kids were all my reasons. Everyday. I remember hearing my four-year-old ask God for a healthy mom with hair. I cried as I crawled back to my bed.

The Air Force surrounded our family. They provided meals, support, and several donated leave so my Joseph could spend chemo weeks at home with me. They were the wind beneath our wings.

After radiation was complete, I had my second mastectomy. I remember being at Walter Reed in my recovery. I was crying alone in my bed. I had considered myself a warrior, but I was done. I felt ashamed, I felt like I had lost everything that made me a woman. I didn't even recognize my body anymore. I struggled to get up and walk like the nurses had wanted me to. I grabbed my IV and forced myself into the hallway. That's when I saw him: a young soldier of maybe 20. He had no legs and one arm. And he was using that arm to hold the door open for me. For me. I hold his smile in my heart even today. I knew that for whatever reason, that young hero was placed in my path to remind me to keep going. If he could do it, certainly I could.

So I did. I completed treatment, my hair grew back, my husband retired out of the Air Force and we took a civilian government assignment to England because once you have cancer, you want to see the world as often and as much as you possibly can for as long as you can with everyone you love.

We are still in England, and my four beautiful little children became four incredible older children with the strength and grace and resilience of what I lived to see them be.

And Joseph is still my hero.