In the War Against Breast Cancer These Military Women Never Surrendered

A soldier, a Vietnam vet and a Veteran Affairs staffer battle breast cancer while serving their country

When we think of the defenders of our country fighting battles, we usually envision people in harm’s way in areas of conflict abroad. But some of these patriots are fighting another battle, too, one that hits much closer to home -- their own war against breast cancer.

A 2009 report from researchers at the United States Military Cancer Institute and other federal and military medical centers showed that the rates of breast cancer are 20 percent to 40 percent higher in the military than in the general population.

Since it's Veterans Day, we wanted to turn the spotlight on the wars that three women -- a deployed soldier, a public servant at the Department of Veterans Affairs, a Vietnam vet -- fought against breast cancer, and what their strategies were for getting through the challenge as well as living life.

Charlie Morgan, Joan Mooney and Joanne Fenninger are “Warriors in Pink,” members of the Ford Cares program that aims to raise awareness and money for breast cancer research. Though they prepared themselves for a life-or-death battle, nobody goes to basic training for cancer.

Charlie’s Armor: Love for Family
Charlie Morgan, a chief warrant officer in the New Hampshire National Guard, can’t wait to embrace her 4-year-old daughter, Casey Elena. Charlie has been deployed to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait for almost a year and she loves to imagine what that hug will feel like when she returns to the U.S. this fall.

You’d never know from looking at this smiling solider with cropped hair and combat uniform that she had already been though her own personal war before heading to the Middle East.

In the spring of 2008, Charlie, now 47, felt a lump in her breast. She thought it was a cyst and made an appointment for an ultrasound and a biopsy. “When I heard my diagnosis, I thought I was going to die,” remembers Charlie, who was a teacher at the time. But instead, she did something that still gives her a chuckle: “I made my female family members and friends feel the lump and promise me that they would do regular exams. I wanted them to know exactly what they were looking for.”

Charlie had already accepted a full-time job with the New Hampshire National Guard, and she was determined that the diagnosis wouldn’t foil those plans. As soon as she could, she had a bilateral mastectomy; the rare cancer had invaded her lymph nodes and grown quickly from five to seven centimeters. Every three weeks from August to November, she underwent a blast of chemo, until, as Charlie describes it, “my body was done.” But, just as she was doing in Kuwait, she imagined her daughter to help her get through. “I was developing a fighting spirit for her,” recalls Charlie with her bright smile.

Charlie continued physical fitness training while undergoing chemo. “It was winter in New Hampshire,” she says, “and I was totally bald. I couldn’t wear a wig because it scared my daughter. So I wore a scarf on my head, and someone came up to me and told me that I was out of uniform. Luckily, one of the generals had told me his daughter was a cancer survivor and that people could see him if they had a problem.”

Charlie graduated in the top 25 in her class, attending Warrant Officer Basic Course and making the commandant’s list. Her brigade of 2,400, including 170 women, deployed on Sept. 11, 2010.

Charlie thinks of herself as a Spiral Warrior, a conduit through which physical and spiritual energies flow. "When death came knocking at my door, I chose not to answer," she says. "In this battle, my armor is my love for my family and my weapons are my positive energy, close friends and family, and spiritual angels.”

What advice does she have for other women? “When I changed my thoughts from negative to positive and educated myself, I started moving forward. ‘Move ahead and look ahead’ is what I tell people.”

NEXT: Joan Mooney, Veteran Affairs Staffer: “What I learned is that we’re not on the road alone”

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