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

Joanne’s Badge of Honor: Warrior Wheels
In the Texas Hill Country, 74-year-old retired professor and breast cancer survivor Joanne Fenninger is content with life on the farm. Her 30-acre Just Enough farm, with its donkeys, dogs, cats and four Arabian show horses, takes most of her energy.

A soft-spoken veteran of Vietnam who served as a field hospital physical therapist, Joanne was one of the first PTs to be sent to a combat zone. It’s still very hard for her to talk about some of the things she witnessed during that war.

Her next big battle came soon after her tour of duty ended: In 1973, while Joanne was getting a master’s degree in psychology and guidance, she discovered a lump during a breast self-exam. What she first thought was a hematoma turned out to be a two-centimeter tumor. Having recently visited a friend who had cancer and witnessing firsthand how frail the woman looked, she scheduled a doctor’s appointment immediately.

Joanne was so sure it wasn’t cancer that she didn’t even want to pack a toothbrush to go to the hospital for a biopsy. When the diagnosis came back as cancer, she stayed on the table, where they performed a modified radical mastectomy. “The lump was on the left,” says Joanne, “but I’d had a few benign lumps on the right and wanted to avoid anything turning cancerous, so a simple mastectomy was performed the following year.”

More than 30 years later, she can remember clearly that when she woke up, she was not particularly concerned about the cancer recurring: “The cancer was gone, and I was grateful I would survive. I never worried about it --I never thought it would do me in. Some of that may have been just thinking positively.”

Joanne knows that she was one of the lucky ones. “I was riding horses two weeks later and I didn’t undergo any chemo or radiation,” she says. “I had no positive nodes.”

Now, in addition to riding horses, she rides around in her “Warriors in Pink” convertible Ford Mustang. (She first saw the car back in 2009 being driven by a breast cancer survivor during an episode of Lifetime’s Army Wives). It has a metal pink ribbon on the front fender, a pink stripe running down the hood and pink ribbons along the lower sides. Ford donated a portion of the proceeds from the sales of these limited-edition Mustangs (no longer available) to Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

Inspired by her mother’s courage when battling breast cancer, Joanne chose Angel Wings as her Warriors in Pink symbol. It honors the angels who have passed after their fight against breast cancer. “I watched my mother’s long, slow deterioration from breast cancer, and her journey was one of dignity and courage,” she said. “Perhaps my strength came from her. She is my angel.”

Lee Woodruff co-authored the best-selling In an Instant, a chronicle of her family’s journey to recovery following her husband Bob’s roadside bomb injury in Iraq. She recently published Perfectly Imperfect. Woodruff is also a contributing editor for ABC’s Good Morning America, reporting on a variety of home and family related topics.

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