Facing the enemy within
March 3, 2009
She has a sweet, welcoming smile and calm, easygoing demeanor. But don't be fooled-there's a war raging around this Soldier. The enemy is at the gate and it's trying to kill her every second of the day.
Unlike her comrades, who are readying for deployment to Iraq with the 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, the enemy she faces is within. It's called rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of juvenile cancer, and this former Pennsylvania National Guard member is waging a war against it to save her life.
Meet 18-year-old Lara Phillips of East Pikeland Township, Pa., who was looking forward to typical teenage rights of passage like graduating high school and prom. She also had a strong sense of patriotism and a military family background, which led her to enlist. She was excited about doing computer encryption for Stryker and helping fight the war on terror.
"I just wanted to be a part of something much bigger than myself," said Phillips, who described herself as rebellious to authority and an unlikely Soldier. "People told me I'd never make it in the Army and the Guard, but I knew that's what I wanted and I was going to fight for it."
During her weekend drills with the Recruit Sustainment Program in 2008, Phillips took a shine to her new-found profession by finding comfort in camaraderie and strength in her Soldier's Handbook. In it she would embrace core values like personal courage and duty. She took a particular liking to the Soldier's Creed, especially the words, "I will never accept defeat. I will never quit."
"I loved being in uniform and the sense of pride and team that went along with it," said Phillips. "Rules started to all make sense and I was looking forward to boot camp and deploying with Stryker."
Little did she know her deployment to war was well at hand.
After a particularly challenging drill shortly before her 18th birthday, Phillips returned home to rest.
"The drills were always challenging, but this one really knocked me off my feet," said Phillips. "Something just wasn't right."
In the process of recovery, she discovered a subcutaneous cyst on her pelvis that suddenly grew to the size of a softball. Alarmed by the growth and unusual sense of fatigue, Phillips went to the doctor to have tests done. A week later, the biopsy returned. It was cancer.
Subsequent tests would reveal tumors throughout her entire body. Her doctors confirmed the diagnosis as a cancer commonly referred to as "rhabdo," which according to the National Cancer Institute is a fast-growing, highly malignant attack on the body's connective tissue. It often attaches to muscle or wraps around intestines, but can prey almost anywhere in the body.
Her initial prognosis was poor, if not defeating: a 5 percent chance of survival. In an instant, Phillips went from battling the trials of boot camp to battling for her life.
Defeating a foe when you are given less than a 5 percent chance of prevailing is daunting enough to make most people surrender. Not Phillips.
Her sadness centered only on returning her uniform to her unit, who told her to keep it throughout her battle.
"But I probably won't be this weight again," joked a grateful Phillips, who thanked her fellow Soldiers before turning to greater concerns.
But the war was not over. The battles raged on as the cancer kept a steady attack against her system, often leaving her weak and teetering on defeat. Like any good Soldier, Phillips kept faith in herself and what she learned from her military instructors. She knew that to win the war, you need a good battle buddy.
Enter her mother, Amy, whose father rose to the ranks of lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and worked under the legendary hero Brig. Gen. W.W. "Bill" Spruance, who taught thousands of Airmen from personal experience how to save lives in perilous situations.
Amy knew it wouldn't be easy, but with the dogma of a drill sergeant and the love of a doting mother, she and Lara set out to kill the cancer and beat the odds.
The "Phillips Army" developed a hardcore daily regimen that would put any basic training plan to shame. Every aspect of her day, from what to eat to when to rest was mapped out and followed precisely. They even plotted on spreadsheets and charts variations in strength or when the therapy would make her weak-that way Lara never got discouraged when the pain and bad times came.
But as of late July, greater dangers lay ahead. The experimental 54-week study and treatment was about to intensify. With seven, high-dose chemicals and constant radiation, this new and unproven treatment was designed to take her white blood cell count to zero, thereby killing the cancer, but leaving her vulnerable to virtually any disease present.
"I have to be disciplined with this, so it's just like boot camp," said a hopeful and smiling Phillips. "They are going to tear me down to build me back up. But attitude is everything-you can still have fun with something that's awful. I know if I let the little things get to me, I'm going to lose."
Just hours before entering into treatment at A.I. DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., Phillips reflected on her days in uniform, the Soldier's Creed and the strength they would give her in battle.
"I'm going to beat this and I am going to fight until I can't fight anymore," said a weakened Phillips. "Failure just isn't an option-I will not fail. I must win this fight so others can live."
And fight she would. Through an intense battle with pain and weakness, Phillips pressed on as six of her fellow juvenile cancer warriors would pass away beside her.
"It hit home what cancer was all about," said Phillips who knows her success in this experimental study could bring hope and life to many. "But I was determined to finish what I started."
For her mother, it was during these darker moments that she became thankful Lara had experienced the military lifestyle.
"Every time she gets down, she sits and writes the Soldier's Creed," said Amy, who admitted that she was reluctant at first for Lara to join the military. "We put it up on her hospital wall to keep her going. It's been her mantra-it's the only way to survive the battle she's in now."
For Lara, the handbook and creed will never be just words on paper or something to blindly memorize.
"I know it sounds strange, but the warrior ethos keeps me going. There are good lessons in there for everyday life," said Phillips. "They drill those into your head when you train so you don't forget. There's no way I'll ever forget them."
Her dedication to military values and sheer determination would result in bittersweet news received shortly after Veterans Day. Just hours after her friend and admirer Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll lost her battle against cancer, her latest tests would reveal a tumor-free body for Lara-it was a tactical victory as planned and a road to victory.
Along with Knoll, Maj. Gen. Jessica L. Wright, Pennsylvania adjutant general, met Lara at the state capital this past summer and was moved by her grit and perseverance. The news could not have come at a better time.
"I marvel at the bravery and courage shown by the Soldiers and Airmen of the Pennsylvania National Guard, and Lara has shown these same attributes in this very intense battle with this life-threatening cancer," said Wright. "Her indomitable spirit and determination are truly inspirational to me."
Phillips can't tell you many details about her particular cancer-to her they aren't important. She just concentrates every day on what she needs to do to survive and return home permanently, free of the terror trying to take her life.
At only 18, Lara Phillips, now as thin, hairless and tired as a basic training recruit, cannot tell you the meaning of life, but ask her a question about survival or reaching goals and she is quick to reveal the meaning in life.
"People will tell you, you can't do it," said Phillips. "Heck, people told me I wouldn't make it in the Guard. They told me I wouldn't beat cancer. You just need to fight with what you want in life, never take it for granted and never give up."
Like many returning warriors, Phillips wants desperately to leave behind a legacy knowing that the pain and sacrifices she made were not made in vain. Reminded by continuing therapy and her loving mother that she isn't home free yet, she permits herself moments to think beyond the cancer battlefield.
Her dreams include returning to the Guard and earning a bachelor's degree in office management or accounting-hopefully somewhere down south where it is warmer, Phillips muses.
But if you really want to see the twinkle in her bright blue eyes, ask her about her fellow Soldiers in the Pennsylvania National Guard or the young children who share her war on cancer.
"If there's anything I do with my life it is going to be helping others who suffer from this," said Phillips. "I want to use what happened to me to bring child cancer awareness and motivate others along the way."
Ask anyone who has come in contact with her and not surprisingly you find Phillips is well on the way to reaching her goals.
"I look forward to the day when she can return to the Guard and share the tremendous gifts she has to offer," said Wright. "She is a Soldier we can all learn from and a person we can all admire."
But for today, Phillips simply reaches into her beloved Army Combat Uniform and pulls out the now tattered Soldier's Handbook, thumbing through the well-annotated and worn pages for another nugget of inspiration. Like any warrior, she is now ready to turn the page, come back from her war and start writing a new chapter in life.
As of this publication date, Lara Phillips is still undergoing the rigors of her 54-week experimental treatment at Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children.
To follow her progress and support her fight, more information can be found at www.caringbridge.org/visit/laraphillips.