Harriet C. Johnson won the fight against breast cancer and has been cancer free for 11 years. She uses her experiences during her fight with cancer to help families with their struggles as Maxwell's Family Advocacy intervention specialist. (U.S. Air Force photo by Rebecca Burylo)
Survivors share their stories

by Rebecca Burylo
Air University Public Affairs

10/15/2012 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. - -- You wouldn't have guessed from the hustle manager Aloys Ingram displays in the Drug Demand Reduction office that taking a shower or getting dressed once exasperated all of her strength. She is a survivor. She wears the badge of conquering breast cancer.

The Federal Women's Program and the Federally Employed Women's organization, in recognition of October as the National Breast Cancer Awareness month, will host their annual Breast Cancer Luncheon, Oct. 25, to honor the strength of such women as Ingram and others at Maxwell proud to claim their victory over breast cancer.

Sporting her powder pink blazer and pink ribbon pin, Ingram recalls the day which changed her life forever - the day doctors found cancer smaller than the size of her finger nail deep within her chest wall. She had felt a pain in her chest after raking leaves during the autumn months 11 years ago and went in for a mammogram.
"And that's when my life started to take a turn," said Ingram. "I started doing the chemo for 1½ years."

Early detection is the best combatant against breast cancer, though chemotherapy and radiation take a toll on every woman treated for breast cancer. Not only is the treatment killing the cancerous cells, but it also tears down the good cells which contribute to the weakness and hair loss found in most chemo patients, said Ingram.

"Those are the things that cancer patients go through," she said. "To lose their hair, everywhere, eyebrows, eyelashes and everywhere you have hair. That's the most devastating thing to cancer patients."

Her hair eventually grew back, but during that tough time without it, friends, her faith and a Pomeranian named Prince were the support and strength she needed to get her through treatment and back on the long road of recovery.

"Every day I walked him [Prince], and the first day I walked him I could only get to the end of the driveway. The next week I got to the neighbor's house. I just kept going," said Ingram. "Everybody takes for granted that I can get up today, I'm going to walk, and I'm going to run. I thank God every morning on the way to work because I know what it takes. We can survive and we are survivors."

Harriet C. Johnson, Maxwell's Family Advocacy intervention specialist, also knows what it takes to beat the fight against breast cancer. Working right down the hall from Ingram in the Medical Health Center, Johnson was diagnosed with breast cancer the same year and received treatment at the same clinic.

However, their journeys to recovery were quite different. Johnson found a small pocket of humor during her treatments by picking out a wig of light brown and gold streaks she said reminded her of the actress Tina Fey's hair to cover her own loss from the chemotherapy. None of her friends recognized her, and her wig became the center of conversation rather than her cancer.

"That made it fun," she said. "It was a real conversation piece. I didn't want people to see me in a gray wig and say, 'Oh, bless her heart, she's got a wig on; she's going through chemo', and not know what to say to me. With this wig it was almost like it was the conversation piece, not my cancer. It made it easier for me and others to talk about it."

Johnson's battle against breast cancer did not start until three months after she discovered a lump the size of a pea in her left breast in June 2001. She had her last chemotherapy treatment in February 2002 and only went in 28 days for radiation treatment.

"Looking back on it, I don't know why I didn't insist on being seen immediately. But when I found the lump I thought, 'Yea, that's definitely a lump.' I knew I needed to do something about it," said Johnson, "But I was in denial. I didn't want to do anything about it."

Going in for her mammogram, the lump was confirmed as cancerous. She underwent a needle biopsy and a surgical biopsy, which removed the section containing the cancer. Then chemotherapy began.

"I was not going to look at it as 'Oh, I'm dying, I have breast cancer,'" insisted Johnson. "Chemo is not a fun thing to go through, but it's not the worst thing in the world you'll ever go through. The unknown is what was scary to me. I just had no idea what chemo was or what it would feel like. I thought I was going to be sick all the time and I was going to lose my hair the first time. I just thought it was going to be the most horrible thing I go through."

However, once she went into chemo, she said it wasn't that big of a deal, adding that the staff at the cancer center was always caring and upbeat. This helped her own mindset of survival during her battle with cancer and completely changed her outlook on life.

"Having a positive attitude makes all the difference in the world," she said. "Cancer is not a death sentence.

The whole experience gave me a different perspective on life. So many of the little things that we think are so important aren't really that important at all in the big scheme of things."

The American Cancer Society recommends women to check themselves, talk to their doctor about mammograms and be proactive when it comes to finding cancer. Although there is no sure way to prevent breast cancer, there are good habits and lifestyle changes that can lower the risk of having breast cancer.Early detection, knowing the medical history in one's family, being physically active, eating a healthy diet, lowering alcohol intake and maintaining a positive attitude are critical in the fight against breast cancer, according to the ACS.