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Pope members join the fight against breast cancer

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Mindy Bloem
  • 43rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
It is an unemotional predator. It cares not whether its prey is rich or poor, tall or short, and in some cases, male or female. All it desires is claiming yet another victim to its menacing clutches. But some are standing up to this sinister force. Some are not taking it lying down. 

Pope and Fort Bragg members alike joined together for a Breast Cancer Awareness 5K Run and One-Mile Fun Walk at Woodland Park May 15 as a way to join the fight against breast cancer. 

The idea for the event was born when Staff Sgt. Monica Garcia, 43rd Operations Support Squadron, and Pam Leeman, a neo-natal pediatric dietician for Womack Hospital, were introduced by a mutual friend. 

Both women have had intimate involvement with breast cancer. Ms. Leeman is a six-year survivor of the disease; while Sergeant Garcia had to watch her aunt suffer with the disease and ultimately come out a survivor - a title many less fortunate women cannot claim. 

Both women had also annually participated in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure; however, awareness events were seriously lacking in Fayetteville and Ms. Leeman and Sergeant Garcia wanted to change all that. 

"To me, this cause is much more than just a volunteer opportunity," Sergeant Garcia said. "I wanted to make other people aware of how incredibly important it is to know the facts of this disease. Most people associate breast cancer with older women, but that is so far from the truth. I have met some incredibly vibrant young women who have been stricken with this disease in the prime of their lives. I felt it was imperative that people, especially women, realize that it can happen to any of them. So it made me think 'What can we do to get something of our own here in Fayetteville?' That's when I made it my mission to try to get something started." 

For Ms. Leeman, helping to organize this event was just another way to realize her struggle had not been in vain. 

When she turned 40, she noticed a little lump in her breast. That little lump would alter her life forever because soon after receiving a mammogram she learned she had stage three breast cancer. There are only four stages in total. 

"My biggest concern was the children," Ms. Leeman said. "I thought 'who is going to sit with my boy and girl when they have their first break-up? Or help my daughter when she goes to prom? Stuff like that. My children were my biggest concerns, but I am a fighter. My dad was Special Forces so I think I inherited some of his backbone. Also, I have a great husband who supported me throughout the entire ordeal. 

Because Ms. Leeman was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cancer, she wanted to fight it with everything she had. She went straight into chemotherapy and radiation after having a mastectomy. She did eight treatments of chemo. Some of the side effects she experienced were burned hands and feet, extreme exhaustion, nausea, intense hot flashes and early menopause. 

During this time, she received an influx of support from her family and friends. 

"My little girl, who was 4 at the time, would sit with me next to her little Barbie bathtub," Ms. Leeman recalled. "I would throw up in her little Barbie bathtub, and she would go wash it out and bring it back. She also would put washcloths on my forehead. I have good kids. I was really fortunate. 

"I also had people who would cook meals for my entire family and bring it over. That is how we ate. I couldn't cook while going through the treatment." 

As a cancer survivor, Ms. Leeman feels a responsibility to helping other people cope with the disease. She has been known to spend her lunch hour visiting with others afflicted with cancer. 

"My biggest lesson learned is that God has a purpose for each of us in our lives," she said. "I never looked at it like 'Woe is me.' Instead I looked at it as a challenge I've been given. How am I going to answer this challenge? Am I just going to crawl up in a little ball and say why me; or am I going to find the reason I've been given this cancer?" 

During one of her lunch hour visits, she met another woman who had also been diagnosed with breast cancer - Nichole, a Pope spouse. 

Nichole was diagnosed with breast cancer in October of last year. She was in the shower when she detected the lump. She went to the Pope Clinic and they immediately sent her to Womack. After her mastectomy, she was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. 

She has had to undergo eight chemo treatments every two weeks for the last 16 weeks and has had 28 radiation treatments. 

Like Ms. Leeman, Nichole asked a lot of the same questions and ultimately found purpose. 

"It's been a long process," she said. "You're scared and worried. I have three children ages 11, 8 and 6 so I worried. I asked myself 'Will I be here in 10 years? Will I be able to see my grandkids?' But I had faith in God, and I knew he was going to take care of me and that he allowed it for a reason. It's such a discouraging process to go through all of this. You meet a lot of women who are very discouraged and it's hard. So I think God's plan for me, because I am normally a positive person, was to be there to uplift other women who were going through the process as well. There is a plan and a purpose for everything. I firmly believe that." 

Nichole believes faith and hope are important elements to have when facing this kind of illness. 

"I knew every day that God was going to be there," she said. "He was with me every day. Those moments when chemo has you so tired you can't get out of bed, He got me up. I still had three boys who I had to take care of so you have to keep going, you have to be positive or else you're miserable and then it's a whole lot worse. Stay positive. It is the only way you'll make it through. If you meet somebody just lift them up, give them a hug and tell them you're praying for them or remind them to hang in there." 

One of the reasons Nichole thought it was important to participate in this breast cancer event was to make people more aware that it affects women of all ages, and even some men, though they are statistically 100 times less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer. Still it happens to both men and women. 

"It affects one in eight women," she said. "I want more people to realize it's not just an older women's disease. I was diagnosed two weeks before I turned 35. I just met a lady who just turned 30 and was diagnosed with it, so it's not just older women who need to be aware." 

Will, husband of Nichole and also a Pope member, admits he has learned a lot by just watching with admiration how his wife handles herself. 

"My wonderful wife is one of the strongest people I have ever met," he said. "She has always amazed me. Prior to finding out what her treatment was going to consist of, I was sitting in Womack reading about breast cancer for the very first time. The only thing I wanted was to keep my wonderful wife alive. I did not care about scars or hair loss. I just wanted my wife. As I read the various sections on treatments I kept rationalizing them in my mind. Double mastectomy - not really a problem, my wife is tough she has handled surgery before. Reconstructive surgery - in my opinion it was not required, but I would support her decision and I knew she could handle the surgery. Radiation treatment - sounded miserable and somewhat painful, but I knew my wife could also handle that because she never has complained about pain in the past. Finally, I read the chapter on chemotherapy and it almost put me in tears. I could not imagine anyone enduring this.
While my wife is extremely tough and resilient, I was not sure even she could endure that treatment. The only way I could rationalize and cope with it at the time, was to convince myself that my wife would not need chemotherapy. 

"In the preceding month, I have witnessed the greatest display of strength, perseverance and love I had ever personally seen as she endured chemotherapy and 'life with breast cancer.' I mention love because I feel my wife endured this because she loved me and our children enough to tolerate the misery so we could continue to have her in our lives."
For Nichole, that love and support goes both ways. 

"My husband has been really supportive," she said. "Days I couldn't get up he would get the kids ready. You can't do it alone. You have to have help. It makes you be more dependent on others." 

Part of that support included her husband, who has more of a stoic personality, coming home and doing unexpected things to make her laugh like putting on a wig and pretending to be a rock star or impersonating actors. Both Nichole and Ms. Leeman admitted that humor plays a vital role in recovery. 

"You have to laugh," Ms. Leeman said. "If you can't laugh, it's going to bring you down."
Nichole is just grateful for every day she gets. 

"I am doing well," Nichole said. "Everything that I could have done medically, I've done. Now it is just in God's hands. For every day God gives me, I am thankful. I'm alive. I get to see my kids another day. I get to see the sun another day. Just treasure each person you have in your life and appreciate them because any day anything can happen." 

During the event, many people who ran or simply came out to show their support said they had known someone personally whose lives had been touched by breast cancer.
Individuals who wanted to participate in this event but were unable to can participate in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Raleigh June 13. They can join the Pope-Bragg Support Group, the Hope for Pope Group or run as an individual. To sign up, go to To learn more about the upcoming breast cancer event in Raleigh, call Sergeant Garcia at 394-1672.