Cancer support group develops ‘Warrior Spirit’

NOTE: Amanda Atwell, wife of Maj. Allen Atwell, commander of the 52nd Comptroller Squadron, is the chairperson of a newly formed cancer support group dedicated to bringing together those affected by the illness to share support and their stories. The next meeting takes place Monday, April 28 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in the Coffee Mill.

If someone were to ask me why we started a group centered around cancer awareness, the first thing that came to my mind was simple: hearing you have cancer just plain sucks.

Fear, anger, shock, denial, disgust, hurt, fury and sadness all flash through your mind as you try to remain composed and attempt to process what you’ve just heard. I’ll never forget the day I heard those words, but let me give you a little background about my experience first.

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My mother (a retired military spouse and my life-long cheerleader) and I have always been very close. In July 2011, while my husband was deployed to Afghanistan, I found out that my mother had been diagnosed with two types of bilateral breast cancer.

Eager to run to her side, I remained home because the same day my husband returned home from deployment she underwent her double mastectomy. Life moved on, and my mother recovered very well. Her hope and optimism was inspiring. However, four months later she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. Needless to say, the emotional toll of hearing those words devastated my family.

After a short time, my mother was [feeling better] and was ready to come for a visit. She said she needed a vacation, and I couldn’t have agreed more. In October 2012, we drank wine and revisited all of the places I had grown up during my youth while living in Germany.

We had a wonderful time and lamented her departing the following weekend when suddenly she froze in front of me and said “Amanda, I think I feel something in my neck. Do you feel that?” I gave her a huge hug and said, “Mom, it’s natural to be worried given everything you’ve been through. Have it checked when you get back, but I feel certain it will be nothing.” My famous last words of doubt.

She left the following weekend and three days after her return to the United States, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

Why am I sharing this? Well, after four cancers in 18 months, my mother called asking me to follow up on a small thyroid mass a women’s health nurse had identified nearly 18 months before in my neck. (In my defense, I had tried to have the mass biopsied, but at 0.9mm, they weren’t too happy about doing it. After five needle attempts, the doctor said it was too small to withdraw enough tissue but, given my age, it was likely to be nothing.)

Anyway, in order to appease my mother, I headed to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center to have my ‘mass’ re-examined. During my trip there, all I could think was ‘I’m sure this is a waste of time,’ but at least I can head to the Kaiserslautern Military Community. In August 2013, that mass had grown to 1.9mm, and I was diagnosed with metastatic thyroid cancer at the age of 38.

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‘I’m sorry you have cancer,’ the doctor said.

I remember it clearly. I was standing in my bedroom when I received the call. Hearing those words literally sent me to the floor. Imagine, one minute everything is fine, and the next you hear that. You think, ‘What? I have cancer?’ followed by fear, anger, shock, denial, disgust, hurt, fury, sadness… ‘How is that possible?’ ‘What does that mean?’ ‘How am I going to tell my husband?’ ‘How am I going to tell my kids?’ ‘Am I going to die?’

I now see that these are all fair questions after living through what I call “the moment that changes your life.” What I mean is this — at that single moment, while being bombarded with raw emotion, you suddenly realize what’s important and everything changes. There’s just no other way to describe it.

After complications the weeks following the diagnosis and treatment, I found myself beginning to withdraw and starting to wallow in self-pity. Despite my background in mental health, it took encouragement from my mother, my husband and my friends to regain optimism and strength.

I started to express my feelings and share my experiences. As I did, I began to realize that I was not the only person on Spangdahlem dealing with cancer. The more I opened up, the more I learned about other people and their past and present battles with cancer.

To be honest, I was baffled by the number of cases and equally amazed by the similarities in our experiences. In any case, one conversation led to two which led to three and so on. It became obvious that there was a need to have a group that allowed people to talk about what was going on in their lives, which is how the idea for this support group began.

We’re all about shared experiences and a mutual need to share our stories with other people who can relate. It is clear that no one should have to deal with cancer alone: not you, your spouse, your kids or anyone else who is close to you. As fighters and survivors, we learn and support one another. We know our stories will be different, but we hope this group will help model strength and provide support as we work through the past, the present and deal with whatever the future may send spiraling at us.

As for my family, my mother is still fighting her own cancer battle, but she remains a true inspiration. She has modeled a desire to fight and never give up which my family and I now call “a warrior spirit.” 

As for me, I’m not even a year from my cancer diagnosis. I had a complete thyroidectomy in September 2013 and intensive inpatient radioactive iodine therapy in November 2013. While managing appointments, medication adjustments, body scans and, with more treatments on the rise, I have developed my own warrior spirit and am also prepared to fight. I have a husband, three young daughters, and a career. Life moves on — it’s that simple. If I’m honest with myself, what’s my alternative?

Therefore, in managing my diagnosis, I have made two simple choices: I will fight, and cancer will NOT define me. I will choose my path and will face whatever is thrown at me. Now, you may wonder if I do this with grace. The truth is I don’t always. There are ‘good’ days and ‘bad’ days, but at least I’m here to live them, right? I draw my strength from a strong support system and a belief that humor is fundamental in happiness.

So, I find the joys in life, like coaching soccer, and try to focus my positive energy there. I live my life, choosing to fight, thankful for each day that I am here to influence others, loving my husband and joyful to be able watch my children grow. It’s just that simple.

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