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Life Altering Moment: Airman survives cancer, gets new lease on life

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Stacia Zachary
  • 43rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Imagine being 28 years old and the epitome of health, strength and youth. You're an Airman just returning from a deployment in support of the Global War on Terror. You do all the normal things when you return: check on the bills and file vouchers with finance, get in-processed, go back to work and schedule medical check ups.
For Staff Sgt. Nicole Calfee, her yearly medical appointment turned out to be anything but routine. When her doctor found a lump in her right breast, Sergeant Calfee's life immediately came to a halt. Instead of planning out her next vacation, she was trying to handle the news of having cancer and how she was going to survive it.
With confirmation that she had Stage IIA breast cancer, Sergeant Calfee and the Air Force worked together to find the best treatment to fight the disease.
Arrangements were made to send her home to Virginia where she would receive medical care from the Pulaski Cancer Center. In the mean time, she needed her family around her for strength and support. With limited resources, Sergeant Calfee didn't know how she would get her mother to her.
"Air Force Aid picked up the tab and gave me a grant to cover travel expenses," said the sergeant. "They offered me help when I needed it most. I will never forget the kindness I received from my Air Force family. So much was given to me and all that was expected in return was to recover."
Once Sergeant Calfee was enrolled as a patient of the cancer center, she underwent aggressive treatment including six treatments of chemotherapy, five weeks of radiology and a lumpectomy.
Throughout the nine months of treatment, Sergeant Calfee had to endure long blocks of time cooped up indoors. Unable to expose herself to germs because of her weakened immune system, she would just look out the window praying for the day she would get to feel the sun warm her skin again and smell the fresh air.
"My mother really was my rock," said the sergeant. "She never once broke down or let me experience doubt about surviving the cancer. She would keep me from feeling sad about not being able to go outdoors and experiencing life like so many others my age."
The one, true low point Sergeant Calfee experienced was when her hair began to fall out.
"I had tried to be so positive but when my hair began falling out, I hit my lowest point since finding out I had cancer," she said. "If it wasn't for the support of my brothers, I don't know where I would be right now."
The doctors suggested she have a hair cutting party. The thought behind such parties is to empower the victim and give her strength from something that could easily become a source of weakness.
"We all shaved our heads," she said. "My three brothers and I all went bald. It was the most empowering thing I had ever done. It was my turning point. It was when I faced the cancer beast and knew with certainty I was ready to win this battle."
From there, all the experiences caused from the cancer were life altering for Sergeant Calfee.
"My youngest brother took me to school with him and introduced me to all his friends," she said. "I learned to really smile that day. There were all these children just rubbing my bald head and telling me it was cool. For the first time, people didn't look at me as ill. More importantly, I didn't feel sick or sad. I felt alive again."
After nine months of treatment, Sergeant Calfee received a clean bill of health and was officially a cancer survivor. Her hair had begun to grow back and she was allowed to return to work. Originally in security forces, she was given the option of remaining in the Air Force on active duty. She needed to cross-train into a new Air Force specialty and chose a medical career field.
"I wanted to have a job where I could now use my life to make other's lives better -- the same way other people had worked to save mine," she said. "Now, I come to work everyday with a smile on my face because I survived and I get to have a direct influence on other people's day and maybe even their lives."
Now the noncommissioned officer in charge of the operative section of the 43rd Aeromedical Dental Squadron, Sergeant Calfee gets to fulfill her need to help others stay healthy and informed of their health.
"I am known as the girl who always smiles at you when you go to see the dentist," she quips. "No one really knows why I smile or why I find life so wonderful -- they only see a woman who is happy and living her life to the fullest."
Sergeant Calfee won her battle against breast cancer because of early detection. Without any family history of the disease or any signs and symptoms of its presence, she could have easily been a statistic of another who succumbed. Instead, she has a story of success to tell.
"I want people to know that there is nothing more important than knowing your body and keeping it healthy," she said. "I now eat nutritious meals, exercise regularly and get regular check ups. I am so in tune with my body that when it's not at its best, I know immediately."
Some key things Sergeant Calfee recommends to anyone fighting a battle against a deadly disease is, "surround yourself with positive people not negativity; take your health more seriously; and know the power behind being a member of the Air Force."
When you hit a rocky patch, medical or otherwise, the Air Force has options available to help care for its Airmen. In many ways, it offers a blanket of protection so Airmen can focus on getting help not finding it.
"I had so many things working in my favor," said Sergeant Calfee. "I had the love and support of my family, and I had the commitment of the Air Force to get me the help I needed. They gave me peace of mind so that I never had to wonder about how I would get help or how I would pay for it. If I had to worry about that, I would never have been able to focus solely on surviving."
Near death experiences can cause people to re-evaluate their lives. Some people may realize that nothing they have ever done up to that point has been important and only a bunch of missed opportunities. Others have a greater appreciation for life afterwards and realize that they now have the insight to live life with conviction.
"This battle could have gone either way -- it could have ended badly," said Sergeant Calfee. "I don't sweat the small stuff anymore. I now realize how precious life is. I know that every experience is a blessing, and I am truly honored to be able to live. That is the reason why
I smile."