Woman Warrior: Battling breast cancer in the military

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Bridgitte Taylor
  • 316th Wing Public Affairs

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, however, for U.S. Air Force Maj. Jessica Brooks, breast cancer awareness is important every day of every year. Sharing prevention methods, information, and stories about breast cancer is something she’ll do at any given opportunity. 

Such opportunities to spread awareness are very important for American women in the military because according to a study focused on cancer occurrence at then Walter Reed Army Medical Center, military personnel were found to be nearly 40 percent more likely to develop breast cancer than non-military.

Brooks, 316th Operation Medical Readiness Squadron nurse manager, was diagnosed with breast cancer on Oct. 18, 2018. Although two years have passed, her story continues mentally and physically through experiencing the remission process. 

“I was in nurse practitioner school at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland when I first noticed my bra wasn’t fitting right and I had a very tender lymph node near my armpit,” said Brooks. She continued with a chuckle, “Since I’m a nurse, I blew it off thinking it was a virus that settled in my lymph node. I didn’t really think anything was wrong.” 

Brooks decided it was time for a “well-woman exam,” an annual preventive screening for breast and gynecological diseases. Her doctor then scheduled Brooks for a mammogram two weeks later. After that, an ultrasound. 

“You should never be able to feel a lymph node, most of them are about the size of a pinky nail and do not cause pain,” said Brooks. “Sometimes they can get swollen, but it’s usually an indication your body is fighting a sickness or virus. However, at this point, my lymph node was measuring the size of a golf ball. They scheduled me for a biopsy a week later.”

Brooks admitted that as time went on, she was still oblivious to the fateful news that awaited her. 

“I got a phone call six days later from the radiologist at the Breast Care Center,” said Brooks as she sighed deeply. “That’s when I found out it was cancer.” She collected her thoughts, choosing words carefully before she spoke again. “For two weeks I was very angry. One reason was getting my results over the phone. Like, are you kidding me?!” 

Brooks paused to laugh and continued, “No one expects a call saying you have cancer. I just hit the floor and started panicking. My family panicked not too long after that!”

She was scheduled for an appointment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center the next morning. Brooks explained that she was overwhelmed at the beginning of the process. 

“That appointment took about four hours just to meet a panel of doctors, nurses, and physicians who were going to be working with me throughout my time at Walter Reed. After that was a series of tests to find out what kind of cancer it is, where it spread to, what stage it’s at, and what the cancer is made of,” said Brooks. “We needed to figure out a plan to tailor my care and move forward.” 

Brooks felt frustrated as the first month passed after her diagnosis. She explained that no one could give her solid answers; she kept being told, “when we know more…”

“It was a really hard concept for my family and me to understand because we just don’t know,” said Brooks. “You don’t know how to go from there or even process things. Once we had a plan and steps to follow, the process became a little bit easier on all of us.”

Slowly but surely, the road to beating cancer was being paved. Brooks underwent numerous medical tests and evaluations and had constant hospital appointments and screenings. 

“Usually breast cancer starts as a tumor in the breast, that’s why it’s so important to do self-examinations and to get professionally checked every now-and-then,” said Brooks. “Admittedly, I wasn’t great at doing self-examinations. Even the doctors after I got my diagnosis said they couldn’t find anything! But when we did magnetic resonance imaging, MRI, we found a 2-centimeter tumor.”

As results began to surface and questions began to be answered, Brooks learned more about her cancer. 

Normal breast cells and some breast cancer cells have receptors that attach to the hormones estrogen and progesterone. The cancer cells depend on these hormones to grow. If the cancer has one or both of these hormone receptors, hormone therapy drugs can be used to either lower estrogen levels or stop estrogen from feeding breast cancer cells. 

This kind of treatment is helpful for hormone receptor-positive breast cancers, but it doesn’t work on tumors that are hormone receptor-negative because it’s harder to tell what’s feeding it.

Similar to hormones, the protein called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2, or HER2, is a growth-promoting protein on the outside of all breast cells. Breast cancer cells with higher than normal levels of HER2 are called HER2-positive. These cancers tend to grow and spread faster than other breast cancers but are much more likely to respond to treatment with drugs that target the HER2 protein.

Some breast cancers can be considered triple-positive, which means the cancer cells contain receptors for the hormones estrogen and progesterone along with the protein HER2. These are typically easier to treat because therapy drugs can be used to stop producing these processes. On the other hand, there are triple-negative breast cancers that don’t have these receptors. 

“My recommended course of treatment was based on the type of cancer I had, and there are many types,” said Brooks. “My cancer gets fed by estrogen and progesterone but does not have receptors for the HER2 protein.” 

Brooks smiled as she continued, “I was kind of stuck in the middle.”

“I was treated as a triple-negative, however I still take medications to block estrogen and progesterone,” said Brooks. 

Chemotherapy, a type of cancer treatment that uses one or more anti-cancer drugs to locate and halt the production of quickly regenerating cells, was the next step for Brooks. Although meant to treat cancer, chemotherapy comes with a plethora of negative side effects such as hair loss, fatigue, nausea, or easy bruising and bleeding. 

“I lost my hair, but I didn’t get super sick because of the pre and post medications they give you to manage chemotherapy symptoms,” said Brooks. “But those medications have their own sets of symptoms, too!”

With such extensive treatments, Brooks was placed on administrative leave and her new mission was to battle cancer. She underwent chemotherapy for five months and then went into surgery for a mastectomy, a surgery in which the entire breast is removed, including all of the breast tissue and in this case, the lymph node, in April 2019. 

The next step in her plan was to go through radiation therapy, a process using ionizing radiation as part of cancer treatment to control or kill malignant cells.

Her radiation therapy consisted of daily treatments for five consecutive weeks. On top of this, Brooks was battling an infection caused by a reconstruction surgery following her mastectomy. 

“It was really a struggle for me,” Brooks admitted. “I was dealing with major body image issues at the time. Radiation had left me with scars and the infection prevented me from having an even chest!”

Brooks explained that she had five different surgeries during the course of her breast cancer treatments. The first was the mastectomy and the second was an immediate reconstruction surgery. Since all breast tissue was removed, temporary tissue expanders had to be placed to make room for a future, more permanent implant.

The third surgery became necessary because Brooks suffered an infection from one of the tissue expanders. Doctors removed the tissue expander and Brooks had to wait four months to fully recover from radiation therapy to receive a new expander. 

The fourth occurred when she was finally cleared to receive her tissue expander in September 2019. At that point, she had completed radiation therapy and started the long road to recovery. 

The final surgery took place in June 2020; Brooks was able to get her tissue expanders removed and breast implants placed. By that time, a year and a half had passed since her cancer diagnosis.

“Hopefully that is my last surgery that has anything to do with this cancer,” said Brooks with a smile. “Now I’m in remission, which means my progress is still being followed closely by doctors. I still go in for frequent appointments and check-ups.”

Although cancer comes with many negative effects, Brooks took advantage of her recovery time and focused on the positives. 

“You have a lot of time to sit and think while you’re recovering; fatigue can get pretty serious,” said Brooks. “I realized many things during that time, one being the direction of my career path. I sat down with my leadership from Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and explained to them that I didn’t want to go back to classes.”

Brooks paused, “...and they said okay! I really couldn’t have asked for better leadership during this process.” 

While in recovery and unable to leave the area, the Air Force Personnel Center located a job for her. Brooks found her way to Joint Base Andrews in December 2019 and slowly immersed herself back into work life. 

Brooks continued to explain all she learned throughout the process. “I learned to do what’s best for me and ask myself, ‘What is it that I want?’ she said. “I also learned what treatment is like from a patient perspective. Being a nurse, it’s easy to lose sight of that. Another big thing I learned is that beauty is not your hair or your skin!”

Amidst the introspection, Brooks recalled the beginning of her journey. 

“If I could go back in time to when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I would try to tell myself that everything is going to be okay, to be patient, and warn my family of the mood swings that come with cancer medication,” said Brooks with a laugh. 

She’s now serving her country, caring for a family of six, and continues to be in remission from breast cancer. 

“My biggest advocacy is to check yourself,” said Brooks. “Do your self-check breast exams! There are all kinds of resources to learn how. If there are any abnormalities or any slight concern, get it checked. It’s better for it to be benign than ignore it and hope nothing’s wrong.” 

For more information about National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, visit https://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/breast-cancer-awareness-month or for information on screening, treatment and support, visit www.cancer.gov.