FORT CARSON, Colo.--Your left. Your left. Your left, right, left, uh huh.I chanted each step as I ran through downtown Colorado Springs during the 2019 St. Patrick's Day 5K. Headphones are not allowed on the race route, so I was left with my thoughts instead of music to distract me.
Your left. Your left. Your left, right, left, uh huh.This year I ran to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. I wore a bright green tutu, shamrock suspenders, and a bow tie with little shamrocks decorating it. I embraced the holiday and wear shades of green, enjoying the beautiful weather. I smile. Only three miles to go. I think of how far I have come.Your left. Your left. Your left, right, left, uh huh.On March 17, 2017, I was awakened at 10 a.m. by a 65-pound husky jumping on me. I had gotten off my night shift at the Garmisch Provost Marshall Office at 5 a.m. I was not pleased with the dog I was watching while my team leader was out of town. Then I looked at my phone.Eight missed calls from Landstuhl Medical Center.I knew the news before I even called back. No one calls eight times from a hospital with good news."Specialist Smith, you need to come into the OB/GYN clinic immediately," a medic on the other end of the line said, panic in his voice."Not happening," I replied. "I'm in Garmisch. That's a six-hour drive one way, and I have to go on shift tonight at 1700 hours.""Um, hold on," the medic replied.The awful hold music that sounds like you are stuck in an elevator from the 1980s came on the line. I remember thinking to myself with all the resources the Army has, why could it not get better hold music? Four minutes passed before a different voice came back on the line."I'm so sorry," the Air Force major I had seen just a few days before said. "I know I said 9 times out of 10, it's nothing. I was wrong. I'm so sorry, Specialist Smith, but it's cancer."Your left. Your left. Your left, right, left, uh huh.The next few hours are a blur. I called my Provost Marshall's wife, Amara Camarata, crying and asking her to drive me the half a mile to the PMO. In our remote location in Germany, those of us assigned to the PMO relied heavily on each other. We truly were family. She didn't bat an eyelash when I asked her to drive me to my appointment earlier in the week, a 12-hour round trip. That's what you do for your family.Amara came and rushed inside the apartment I was staying in, holding me and crying while I sobbed, exhausted and devastated. Her 16-year-old daughter, Camryn, home on spring break, cried with us.Your left. Your left. Your left, right, left, uh huh.By noon that St. Patrick's Day, seven men all knew the intimate and inner (dys)functions of my cervix and uterus: my team leader, my provost sergeant Master Sgt. Anthony Gonzalez, my provost marshall, Maj. Kevin Camarata, my first sergeant, my company commander, my garrison command sergeant major and garrison commander. Two of these men I had never met in person, yet now I sat with a growing sense of shame and humiliation, devastation, anger and loss as my anatomy was being discussed in details over the phone.One of these phone calls was to the 7th Army Noncommissoned Officers Academy. I was to report for Basic Leader Course in two days. Now there was a mad rush to contact the academy to get a medical deferral. After waiting for so long to go to BLC in order to further my career, I sat sitting on a sagging government issue couch, listening in silence as my Army career came to a screeching halt.Your left. Your left. Your left, right, left, uh huh.I was scheduled for my first surgery bright and early Monday morning. Another six-hour drive to Landstuhl. Amara told her husband she was going to be taking me back up to the hospital in a matter of fact tone. Maj. Camarata and Master Sgt. Gonzalez agreed that would be for the best. I sat numb as things were discussed around me, feeling like a child but not wanting to contribute anything to the conversation.I stood in the gray-green hallway of the PMO. Master Sgt. Gonzalez came out of the office to speak to me, while Maj. Camarata was on the phone with someone who far outranked all of us. Not someone who was entirely sensitive, Master Sgt. Gonzalez was a former drill sergeant, who had a sense of humor that was almost entirely sarcastic and enough time in service to be close enough to retiring that he would just say what he thought on most matters and wasn't worried about consequences anymore. He was not a bad leader, but I wasn't especially comfortable around him.He started telling me about when he was deployed, and one of his NCOs found out she had cancer. He knew this wasn't something that could just be a quick fix, something you just went to the medics about and were told drink some water and take an ibuprofen. This was going to be a possible long-term, life-threatening ordeal I was dealing with. He wasn't minimizing the importance at all.Instead, Master Sgt. Gonzalez looked me in the eye and told me one of the most comforting things I would hear through the whole ordeal."Don't worry about us or this station," he said to me. "Your job now is to just focus on getting better."Your left. Your left. Your left, right, left, uh huh.At 8 a.m. Monday morning, I sat waiting to go back for surgery. A few hours later, I woke up groggy and sore. The doctor came in and said the surgery went well, and he was positive he was able to get all the cancer, and everything was going to be okay. Amara later remarked the minute she heard the doctor say that, she knew he was wrong. She knew in her gut he was wrong.She was right.They didn't get all the cancer. I would have to go back to the U.S. for another surgery.Your left. Your left. Your left, right, left, uh huh.For six weeks, I sat at the station and worked behind a desk, waiting to be healed enough only to have to be sliced again. I was cleared to 'work,' but I could not be a patrol. I could not wear my protective gear, and trying to run in the case of any emergency was out of the question. I could not even bend at the waist.One day, I wasn't fast enough and a pen rolled off of the desk at the station and onto the floor.Tears welled up in eyes. I could not pick a simple pen off the floor. I sat at the desk and sobbed, lamenting my life. If I couldn't do something as simple as bend over, how was I ever expected to recover enough to be a Soldier again? How was I ever going to be able to lead anyone? Thoughts of despair and doubt raced through my head.Master Sgt. Gonzalez's words came back to me.My job was to focus on getting better.Your left. Your left. Your left, right, left, uh huh.I was allowed to pick between two hospitals for my second surgery. I went with Brooks Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. I would be able to do my convalescent leave at home with my family a few hours away. I could wallow in my own self-pity in the privacy of my childhood home. I could figure out what I was going to do with my life. I could allow myself to break into a million pieces if need be.Your left. Your left. Your left, right, left, uh huh.The second surgery was a success, and all the cervical cancer cells were removed. I was "lucky," because I only had to have surgery and not chemo or radiation therapy.But there was a cost.I was informed by my doctor that I would most likely never be able to have children, and that if the cancer came back, I would have to have a hysterectomy.But I was alive.And more importantly for me, I could still be a Soldier.Your left. Your left. Your left, right, left, uh huh.Back in Germany, recovery was not easy. I was in more pain than before. I struggled with my physical training. Two weeks after being cleared to work again, I took a PT test.I failed.The anger at my body for betraying me with something I couldn't control fueled my motivation to work harder. I would not let the cancer win. I could not let it win.I was stronger than that.Thirty days after my failed PT test, I spent my birthday taking another PT test.The triumph I felt as I passed was short lived. I needed to shower and get ready for shift, because I was a Soldier.I was a Soldier who beat cancer.I was never alone throughout my ordeal. My Army family was there for me. I never felt like my cancer was the only thing I was known for.No matter what, I was still Specialist Smith.I was a Soldier.When I finally met my garrison commander on one of his visits to our station, an older gray-haired colonel who towered over me by at least a foot, he gave me a hug.He told me he knew I was going to fight and kick cancer's butt, and I hadn't disappointed him. He was excited to see how far I would go in my Army career, because if nothing else, I proved I was a fighter.Your left. Your left. Your left, right, left, uh huh.The finish line was about 300 feet in front of me now. The race on the sunny Saturday was almost done. With a final burst of speed, I sprinted and crossed the finish line. My stopwatch told me I did the race in 27:19. I smiled, winded and red faced. I finished my race. I thought about how far I'd come.I bent over and tied my shoe. Straightening, I stepped off with my left foot, the cadence still running though my head.Your left. Your left. Your left, right, left, uh huh.