Commentary

November 9, 2012

Through Airmen’s Eyes: Airman battles breast cancer

by Airman 1st Class Chacarra Walker
Joint Base Charleston public affairs
Air Force Week kicks off in New York City
(U.S. Air Force graphic/Corey Parrish)

JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C.  — (This feature is part of the “Through Airmen’s Eyes” series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

“I was 21 years old and didn’t think I was strong enough to beat two cancers — I thought my life was over,” said Senior Airman Latisha Chong.

Chong, a flight kitchen specialist from the 628th Force Support Squadron at Joint Base Charleston, S.C., was diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer, Jan. 19, 2012. Two weeks later, the same doctor who discovered her breast cancer told her that she also had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“I was all jacked up,” Chong said.

Chong had just returned from a six-month deployment in Southwest Asia, when she noticed two lumps in her breasts and immediately knew something was wrong. Her doctors diagnosed the lumps as cancerous tumors.

“I immediately called my mom.” Chong said. “Even though it was her birthday, she needed to know the bad news.”

Chong’s mom, Darlene Vincent, was living in Brooklyn, N.Y., when she learned the earth-shattering news.

“It was heartbreaking,” Vincent said. “I knew Latisha needed my support, so I packed up and moved to Charleston.”

The next person Chong called was her supervisor, Tech. Sgt. Christian Farin, noncommissioned officer in charge, flight kitchen, 628th Force Support Squadron. Chong said she felt Farin was someone who was always available to listen and help with her problems.

“This was the first time I’ve ever experienced an Airman coming to me with this type of news,” Farin said. “I didn’t know what to say, I really couldn’t believe it.”

Farin tried to put Chong’s mind at ease by letting her know, she not only had his support, but the support of the entire squadron.

Chong was facing five months of chemotherapy followed by radiation to stop the growth of the tumors in her breasts. Hodgkin’s disease is a type of lymphoma, a cancer that starts in cells called lymphocytes that are part of the body’s immune system.

On top of it all, Chong would still have to take care of her two-year-old son, Malachi.

“Since my immune system was weak, anytime Malachi showed even the slightest signs of a cold or any other illness I would have to stay away from him,” Chong said. “The thing that kept me grounded the most was praying. You have to believe in something; that’s how I stayed positive.”

Fortunately, Chong had the support of the 628th FSS team members, who ensured Malachi was enrolled in the base child development center. This gave Chong a bit of time for herself and time to focus on defeating the two cancers that were still spreading throughout her body.

“Raising a child alone is hard, but raising a child while battling two cancers is overwhelming,” Chong said.

When Malachi wasn’t at the CDC, Chong’s mother would help out while Chong was going through chemotherapy and radiation.

The treatments had begun to take their tolls on Chong. The chemotherapy made her feel like she constantly had the flu and the radiation caused fatigue and night sweats.

“Going through chemotherapy made me feel extremely cold,” Chong said.

“When I went out in public, even though it was summer, I had on sweats, boots, a jacket, a scarf and on top of everything else, I wore a mask,” she said. “People looked at me as if I wasn’t human.”

Wanting to understand what Chong was going through, Farin decided to spend a day with her to get a better understanding of how he could help.

“It didn’t really hit me until I saw her without hair,” he said. “I took leave for a day and watched Chong go through an entire session of chemotherapy. I don’t know what I would have done if I was in her shoes.”

Chong wore a wig while going through chemotherapy to mask her hair loss.

“After a while I couldn’t take it anymore,” she said. “Once the physical changes started to become noticeable, I wanted to stand out less in public. A wig helped.”

Besides losing her hair, Chong dealt with fluctuating weight.

“The different stages of treatment caused me to either lose or gain extreme amounts of weight,” she said. “I was going through a lot at such a young age.”

After five grueling months of chemotherapy, Chong had made it over the mountain and was ready for radiation followed by surgery.

“When I graduated from chemotherapy so many people from my squadron showed up, even the hospital staff was shocked,” said Chong. “They had to make room for everybody and the other patients. That’s when I realized what true Wingmen are.”

It was now September and Chong was finished with radiation and prepped for surgery. Nervous and excited to be having the cancerous tumors in her breasts removed, Chong slipped into unconsciousness as the anesthesia overtook her.

“When it was time for surgery I prayed,” said Chong. “I prayed that everything would go as planned and that I would make it out safely.”

On June 19, 2012, Latisha’s doctors told her she was cancer free.

Chong said she was happy about the prognosis and since her mother was already by her side, Farin was the first person she called to tell the good news.

“Every time she called me, she told me bad news,” Farin said. “But this time I could tell in her voice it was good.”

Even though Chong was cancer free, she would still need to go through another 33 rounds of chemotherapy to ensure the cancer did not return.

Once she was diagnosed as cancer free, Chong wanted to know when she could go back to work.

“I was ready to get back to services, where I help people — because that’s what we do,” Chong said. “The best part about my job is the people.”

Chong is scheduled to return to work at the end of this year. Even though she is cancer free, she still has one more hurdle to overcome. She is currently going through a series of reconstructive surgeries to prepare her for her new breasts. Chong had a total of five surgeries and is scheduled to have two more.

“When they told me they were going to remove my breast I wasn’t sad; I was excited because now I was going to get bigger and better ones,” Chong joked.

Chong’s battle with cancer didn’t go unnoticed by the rest of her command. While she was going through chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, Tech. Sgt. Antonia Williams, 628th FSS, put together a team to run in the Charleston, S.C., Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, in honor of Chong.

“Talking to Latisha was so inspirational, she was so positive,” Williams said. “I had only known her for a few weeks, but I knew I wanted to make a difference in her life and do something special for her.”

Williams put together a team of more than 50 runners and set a goal of $1,000 in donations. The team not only met the $1,000 goal, they exceeded it by more than $700.

“I’m very happy about the run, it shows people care,” Chong said.

The team ran the race Oct. 20 and best of all, Chong walked the race with her fellow Wingmen.




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