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Veteran survives breast cancer, encourages others

Air Force Lisa Jeffery smiles while her parrot, Valentina, perches on her head.

Air Force Lisa Jeffery smiles while her parrot, Valentina, perches on her head.

Monday, October 31, 2016

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Second only to lung cancer, breast cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer deaths in women. If detected early, localized breast cancer has a 99 percent survival rate. Air Force Veteran Lisa Jeffery is a type 1 diabetic who uses an insulin pump. She's also a breast cancer survivor and a testimony to the benefits of early detection. She hopes her story will help other women and encourage those battling breast cancer to keep fighting and find more good days.

“I knew I had chances of breast cancer”

As she looked out her hotel window at Tiananmen Square that first morning in Beijing, Jeffery was in awe at the sight. She was visiting China for the opening of the American Flying Tigers Guilin Heritage Park in 2015. Breathless by the moment and experience, she placed a hand on her chest and noticed a lump that felt like a piece of gravel. She immediately thought of her mother who passed away from breast cancer in 2008.

“I knew I had chances of breast cancer,” she said. “I didn’t know what to pray. Here I am a public speaking coach. I teach people to give speeches, and I did not know what to say to God. I knew right then looking out of the window in Beijing that it was breast cancer, and I need to get back.”

She spent the next two weeks visiting China, while doing her best to put aside the terror and worry. After returning to Miami, Jeffery immediately called Dr. Marlene Fletcher, radiologist in the breast clinic at the Bruce W. Carter VA Medical Center, who regularly helped with her annual mammograms.

“I get mammograms every year. Dr. Fletcher has been a big part of my life,” she said. “When I came home, I called Dr. Fletcher and told her I had just returned from China and found something. Of course, she took me immediately.”

During the next few weeks, Jeffery underwent a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy. The results of the biopsy rattled her to the core.

“Dr. Fletcher called me and told me it was triple neg. breast cancer,” she said. “You start thinking about death. You start thinking about life. I thought about my mother, and you don’t know what to do. You are absolutely terrified, and I mean petrified.”

Fight like a Spartan

The news was devastating for Jeffery. Throughout the next couple of weeks, her family and friends reached out to her offering their thoughts and prayers. It was the advice of her friend who lived in Spain that would change the course of Jeffery’s fight.

“He said ‘you have to fight like a Spartan now,’” she said. “The Spartans are famous for being the most fearless army, fighting armies bigger than them, and they never lost a battle. He sent me pictures of Spartans marching. I knew that’s the way I needed to be.”

The hat of a warrior

photo on left, lisa jeffery smilies with decorated military hat. photo on right, jeffery smiles, wears decorated hat at a chemotherapy session with a book on lap titled Spartan Up

Jeffery's decorated hat helped during her chemotherapy sessions and reminded her to fight breast cancer like a Spartan.

In her career as a professional public speaker, Jeffery coached Israeli Soldiers in delivering speeches. Upon hearing Jeffery had been diagnosed with breast cancer, one of her former pupils sent her a green Israeli Defense Forces hat. Another pupil who was a tank commander also sent a tank insignia.

“It was the first insignia I had on the hat. I said to myself you’re going to fight like a tank commander,” she said.

She posted a photo of the hat on Facebook. Her friends began sending military insignias and rank pins she could add as a way to show their support.

“An Army colonel said ‘you need an American tank.’ In came an American tank,” she said. “A friend of mine who was a public affairs officer sent me an F-35 and his colonel rank. I wore my captain bars on the hat. A French Air Force lieutenant sent me his wings and lieutnant bars. Then my Marine and Navy friends sent me combat and submarine insignia. I had warrior insignia from all over the world.”

The hat helped Jeffery during her fight, and fight she did. Because her mother also had breast cancer, the location of the lump and the triple negative diagnosis, Jeffery made the difficult decision of undergoing a double mastectomy.

“I decided I didn’t want to live in fear everyday that it’s going to come back,” she said. “It’s a highly personal choice. For each woman it’s different.”

Jeffery wore the decorated hat when going through her surgeries and to her chemotherapy sessions for the next four months. The hat served as her reminder she needed to fight cancer like a Spartan, like a Soldier.

“I was born under a lucky star”

Today, Jeffery is cancer-free, but still battles the effects of chemotherapy on her body. She's had to undergo surgery several times and experienced damage on the joints in her hands. From the diagnosis of breast cancer to her ongoing rehabilitation, the Miami VA Healthcare System and its employees have been there, working with Jeffery every step of the way.

“I was born under a lucky star [that] I have the Miami VA, because they did take care of me,” she said. “I believe I wouldn't be alive today without the help of Dr. Valencia and Kathy Walker in the diabetes clinic. I didn’t die. I am alive. I also realized that if I am to survive, I can't do it alone. I realized I also needed to get out and do things and live life again.“

Since battling and overcoming breast cancer, Jeffery is doing things again and even some things she never thought she could. Because of the pain in her joints, it's been painful for Jeffrey to use her hands. With the help of Baltimore Adapted Recreation and Sports, Jeffery learned how to ski without poles or the use of her hands for the first time in Maryland. She also entered and won awards in the 2016 Miami VA Veteran’s Creative Arts Competition and the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival. She helped support others impacted by breast cancer as a Ford Model of Courage Warrior in Pink.

Advice for women battling breast cancer

Jeffery believes the skills she learned during her military service—discipline, tenacity, resourcefulness, and creativity—helped prepare her for battling breast cancer. She has a few words of advice for anyone battling breast cancer or a serious illness.

  • Try to gather your support group, even if you don’t have one. I got this piece of advice from a friend who had just went through breast cancer. You can’t fight this alone. I created a Facebook group and gathered all my people. I could update everyone at once.”
  • Fight like a Spartan. You’re going to go into battle. Fight.”
  • Try to forgive yourself if you can’t do something.
  • Try to have more good days. For me it was poetry … made me happy, so I went back to the Creative Arts Festival. Poetry is one of my passions. I have African grey parrots. My other passion are my parrots. I taught my African grey named Valentina, who’s 16. She calls me boobie. She says ‘boobie, you know what? You’re special. I love you.’ They helped me with my good days. These are my passions.”
  • Finally, send your guardian angels on deployment to help others. That’s what breast cancer survivors do for other survivors. In helping others, we help ourselves. If you’re ever sad, that makes you happy to help others.”

Breast Cancer Risk Factors

“Early detection increases the chances of survival and makes all the difference,” said Dr. Panagiota Caralis, Miami VA Women Veterans Program medical director. “There are steps people can take to limit their risk of developing breast cancer. Maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly, limit alcohol and talk to your doctor about how often you should schedule routine mammograms. Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about your risk.”

For more information about risk factors visit the Centers for Disease Control website.

VA is here to help!

For about two decades, VA has lead the nation in breast cancer screenings for women. Women Veterans program managers are available at VA medical centers nationwide and help women learn about available benefits and services. The Women Veterans Call Center, 1-855-829-6636, is another resource for women Veterans to learn about the benefits they have earned.

The Miami VA Healthcare System has many resources and support for women Veterans, including a Women Veterans Health Clinic, Breast Clinic, and a Women Veterans Program team who can answer any questions. To contact the Women Veterans Health Clinic, call 305-575-7000, ext. 7001. For more information about services available for women at the Miami VA Healthcare System visit the Miami VA Women Veterans page.


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