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Guardmember beats breast cancer with early detection

By Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke
National Guard Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va. (10/21/09) – With a yearlong deployment just around the corner, Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Cowie opted for an aggressive treatment plan for her breast cancer that would quickly get her back to her unit.

“As soon as people hear the word cancer, they have the worst thought in mind,” said the supply NCO with the California Army National Guard. “That's really not the case these days. There are treatments available and with early detection, everything can happen with a little better outcome. So, early detection is really the key.”

Her gamble paid off, and she deployed with her unit to Kuwait in 2007. Since that time, Cowie has gotten a follow-up every six months, and she remains cancer-free today.

“Early detection was the key for me,” she said. “They think shortened life span, losing your hair … but if it is caught early, it is treatable. I went from diagnosis to cancer-free in 30 days with very little interruption in my life.”

During pre-mobilization training at Camp Atterbury, Ind., Cowie had an ultrasound after something was spotted on her mammogram. Through TRICARE, she found a breast care specialist in Indianapolis, who did a biopsy.

Three days later, she found out that she had Stage 0 breast cancer, “which is very, very early,” Cowie said.

The specialist said breast cancer is usually caught at Stage 2 or 3. “I thanked my lucky stars that someone looked close enough at the mammogram,” Cowie said.

Once diagnosed, Cowie discussed her timeline with her surgeon and oncologist. Her unit would be leaving Camp Atterbury in 30 days.

The doctors explained the options available to her, which included a new treatment available “that I was a good candidate for,” Cowie said.

MammoSite® is a five-day, targeted radiation therapy. It works from the inside, which means that a higher daily dose can be used for a shorter period of time.

“So, that is what I chose to do,” said Cowie. “I was really committed to my deployment being so far into the training. It was not an option for me personally to back out and say, ‘Hey, I have to go home.' I made a commitment to these troops and to this unit to see this through as long as the military would let me.”
Cowie was treated twice a day for 15-20 minutes for five days. “It was pretty aggressive, but …. I consider myself pretty lucky to have caught it so early,” she said. “I am a perfect example of (early detection).

Throughout her ordeal, Cowie said she was supported by her biological family and her Guard family.
“My family understands my dedication to duty,” she said. “But the call to mom was a little scary for me. I put it off until I absolutely had to. I didn't want them to worry. They are already worrying that I'm deployment, so now I had to give them something else to worry about.”

Cowie said they offered their support and didn't get overly emotional. “That was the support that I really needed, because I wanted to stay focused. I didn't want to go into the negative thoughts … I just couldn't go there.”

With her Guard family, it was a little different. Both her commander and first sergeant were men. “It was a little tricky at first, but they were so great.”

After explaining her situation, Cowie said they told her that it was her decision and they would support her either way. “I thought about it for two seconds, and said, ‘I'm staying.' They were a big, big help to me.”

The hardest part was continuing to lead her Soldiers, Cowie said. “As an NCO, you always have to lead from the front. With this, that a little difficult.

“There were days that were a little harder for me,” because of the treatment,” she said. “But I knew my Soldiers looked up to me. I had to make sure that I was still [there] for my Soldiers, and at the same time still taking care of myself.”

Cowie, who is a 15-year veteran of the Army Reserve and the Army Guard, said the experience gave her a greater appreciation for the research being done to cure all forms of cancer.

“Little did I know how much new treatments would mean to my life,” she said.

Cowie said she doesn't consider herself a cancer “survivor,” but she does fall into that category.

Throughout her battle, Cowie was in contact with her surgeon and oncologist every day. “I was committed to making this happen,” she said. “The whole team knew what our end goal was … not just to be cancer-free, but also to not totally lose what I had going on with the deployment.”

Cowie said if she wasn't able to stick to the timeline, she knew she may have to follow the unit later, but she had no other doubts about the path she chose.

“When things fall into place, you have to believe that there is someone is out there watching out for you and that there is a plan ahead of you and you are on the right course,” she said.

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