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

Joan’s Friends: As Valuable as Chemo
As assistant secretary for congressional and legislative affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C., Joan Mooney is passionate about serving the people who serve our country. It’s a cause very close to her heart. Joan’s family has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and her father was an Atomic veteran who served in the Marshall Islands during nuclear tests and ultimately died from a service-related cancer called mantle cell lymphoma.

Just over a year ago, when Joan discovered a lump under her arm while taking a shower at home in Oregon, she immediately had it checked out. When she heard the words “That’s a freakishly abnormal lymph node,” she went on to have a biopsy, because the first test at the women’s clinic, a mammogram, had shown nothing.

Back in her D.C. office before Labor Day weekend of 2010, Joan was nervous to pick up the phone for her results. When she got the breast cancer diagnosis, she immediately emailed a colleague in the building who came to help guide her through some questions on the phone.

“Cancer is a really, really scary word,” says Joan, age 48. “In some ways, it’s almost scarier for people who have experience with it, like I did with my dad.”

At the time, her daughter had just transferred to a new college in North Carolina. Joan wanted to travel there to tell her in person about the diagnosis. On the drive down, she was pulled over for speeding. When the police officer asked her why she was so distracted, she said she was about to tell her daughter she had cancer. He let her go without a ticket. “When I told my daughter, she laughed and said, ‘Mom, that’s a messed-up way to get out of a ticket.’ And I answered, “Well, honey, it’s true.”

Joan finished up the last of her travels for the time being, even flying in a Black Hawk helicopter and feeling painful pressure at her biopsy sites. She underwent surgery; the doctor removed twenty lymph nodes and a tumor in the breast. Joan took only a day-and-a-half off work. “I had the surgery at 1 o’clock on a Thursday, and the following Monday I was back at work,” she says. “I was focused on the mission and the Army warrior ethos: Never quit. Never accept defeat. I just kept charging through.”

Joan began 16 weeks of chemo while still working dawn to dusk hours, which were the norm. She found the work therapeutic, but in February, the cumulative effects of the chemo caught up with her, and she had an adverse reaction: Joan suffered acute respiratory distress and pneumonitis and was hospitalized for a month.

Joan says her journey is like that of the Warrior’s Circle, and that she relies on the power of thousands of Warriors uniting together. “What I learned is that we’re not on the road alone, survivors and co-survivors. More people than we realize care about us and want to see an end to suffering from this disease,” says Joan, whose friends and neighbors joined her for a Victory Garden party to celebrate the end of her treatment in June. They planted perennials and organic vegetables in a pink and white garden she created to commemorate her fight. “I’m pretty independent and am used to helping others. But my family and friends really took over, and I am so glad that they did and that I let them.”

Joan, who now has no evidence of the disease, says other Warriors in Pink should take every bit of help offered -- and ask for help when needed. “The support I got,” adds Joan, “was as valuable to my own healing as the surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.”

NEXT: Joanne Fenninger, a Vietnam Vet, is a 38-year-survivor

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