Spouse determined to beat cancer again
September 2, 2011
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. --
As a mother, Army spouse and former family readiness group leader, Ivey Powell was no stranger to advocating for the welfare of others. But she never suspected that she would need every bit of the energy she had poured out on behalf of her husband, children and Soldiers to fight for her own life.
In January Powell, then 28, experienced discomfort in her left breast after weaning her 1-year-old son. Suspecting a milk duct might have clogged, she made an appointment with her doctor, expecting the visit to be brief. She began to worry, however, when her doctor recommended an ultrasound "just in case."
Powell had no family history of cancer; the prospect of having the disease seemed impossible. After an ultrasound, two biopsies, visits to several hospital clinics and seemingly endless waiting, Powell received shocking news that she had breast cancer and was pregnant with her third child.
Rather than agonize over it, Powell said her husband's career was the first thing that came to mind.
He had just been promoted the day before and was selected by-name for a position in Germany. She feared her health would prevent them from moving to Europe at the expense of her husband's career. They had plans to celebrate his promotion that evening, but she canceled under the weight of the news.
"It all happened so fast," said Maj. Christopher Ophardt, Powell's husband and I Corps deputy public affairs officer. "I couldn't process it all at first."
Ophardt had a grandfather and an aunt who had died of cancer, so it was difficult for him to be optimistic. Powell, on the other hand, spent eight years working in an intensive care unit where she routinely encountered life-threatening medical conditions. Her view of the diagnosis was much different than her husband's.
"To me, breast cancer was a very beatable scenario," Powell said. "I thought, 'I can beat this in a heartbeat. I'm not going to let this get to me.'"
Powell was faced with two options: undergo a mastectomy or begin chemotherapy. Choosing the latter would require her to wait until she was at least 12 weeks pregnant, and as a result increase the chance of its spreading. Without hesitation, she told the doctors to remove her breast.
"It was the easiest option in my mind to keep me alive," Powell said.
Of the 28 lymph nodes the surgeons removed, 19 were found to be cancerous.
Powell said she wouldn't wish her recovery process on anybody. Two weeks post-surgery, she had a port cut into her chest through which a needle administered the chemicals for her chemotherapy.
Her doctors explained the punishing side effects of chemo, for which they said patients had nicknamed the treatment the "red devil." Despite that knowledge, she insisted on an extra fifth cycle to maximize its opportunity to eradicate the illness.
"They told me it would knock me on my butt," Powell remembered. "It would make you have diarrhea, it would make you throw up, it was known to make you lose your hair ... It was going to run you down to where you'd have no energy."
Powell took hair matters into her own hands by shaving her long blonde locks before chemo had a chance to steal them.
"It was a reality check," Ophardt recalled. "It was the first physical sign, other than her mastectomy, that she had cancer."
By the time her fifth treatment cycle ended, it was June and Powell was cleared of breast cancer -- but her battle was far from over.
Powell found herself at the hospital again just two weeks later. At 33 weeks pregnant, she thought their daughter's foot was wedged against her ribcage. An ultrasound revealed yet more devastating news: doctors saw spots on her liver they suspected were cancer, and needed to perform a biopsy to confirm. Powell had hoped to deliver their daughter at full-term, but the prospect of cancer couldn't wait. To avoid endangering her unborn child, Powell asked doctors to perform a cesarean as soon as possible.
"At that point (34 and a half weeks gestation), I felt she could sustain life, but I needed to fight for mine," Powell said. "I felt between me, her and God, I knew we could make it."
Powell underwent a risky cesarean and biopsy two weeks later, on July 13. She delivered a healthy girl, named Heiress, weighing 6 pounds, 7 ounces. Eight hours post-surgery, Powell held Heiress for the first time. It was an experience like no other, she said.
"I went into it thinking that I might not wake up out of the surgery because things could've gone wrong," she said. "When I finally got to hold her, it was a breath of fresh air that made me want to keep fighting, even though I knew the (biopsy) results I was about to get back probably weren't good."
Tests confirmed her fears. Powell was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer the day after giving birth.
At a time when others might have lost hope, she instead focused on her children and the life she had to live.
She admits to thinking about what might happen if she succumbs to the disease, but tries not to dwell on it.
"It's definitely a tricky little bugger ... One of those things that -- could destroy you," she said. "But I have to fight no matter what because there's too much to live for."
Powell's biological and extended Army Families are fighting alongside her. Family members from Florida have traveled to stay with her during critical times during chemo and FRG volunteers have provided meals. Her enrollment in the Army's Exceptional Family Member Program ensures the Family won't relocate until after her full recovery. Ophardt's chain of command has been fully supportive of his need to take extended leave.
Powell now places her hope in an experimental chemo called Trastuzumab Emtansine, or "T-DM1," which she began Aug. 11. Having Stage IV cancer leaves Powell, now 29, with no cutoff date for treatment, but she remains optimistic.
"If you stop and you just start mourning before you're even dead, what's the point?" she said.
Until then, she lives her life as if each day is her last and does her best to push through any adverse effects of the chemo.
"All I want is to live," she said. "As long as I can watch my children grow up -- this will all be worth it."