Nearly a decade ago, U.S. Air Force Maj. Leslie Balcazar was physically thriving, running half marathons, swimming and a practitioner of karate, describing her health as very good to excellent.
Balcazar was also focused on her career in the Air Force. Already in the small unique field of midwifery services, a field occupied by less than two dozen Airmen, she was focused on continued education and training. In 2014, a week before attending a training session, Balcazar’s life would change forever.
“I thought I was doing very, very well, especially for being 42,” said Balcazar, 50, describing her overall wellness. Two years prior, Balcazar had her first mammogram, deciding to get screened every two years as recommended by some studies. “I did it at 40 and then I did it again at 42. There was nothing palpable there, it was just me going in because I wanted to go to a class.”
Following the mammogram, the radiologist detected abnormalities in Balcazar’s results. Following a biopsy, Balcazar was diagnosed with hormone-receptive positive breast cancer, a type of breast cancer which feeds off the hormones of the individual.
“I was in treatment from 2014 to 2015. My oncologist recommended I do chemotherapy, radiation while I also entered into a study to receive (an antibody to treat the cancer),” said Balcazar, chief of Midwifery Services at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. “It wasn't an immediate ‘we're going to do this,’ it was a discussion because sometimes there's just not an obvious answer. It's not going to be the same for every woman, and your history is not always going to be the same.”
For Balcazar, there were no warning signs leading to her diagnosis. She had little to no risk factors, there wasn’t a history of breast cancer in her family, yet she found herself preparing for the treatment while attempting to preserve her vivacity.
“Like many other people in the military, I had joined the Air Force following 9/11. Initially as a National Guard (Service Member) then moved on to active duty,” said Balcazar. “So, taking a knee was not an easy thing to do, especially when you're a woman in the military.”
Before treating the cancer, Balcazar had educated herself on what to expect and how to prepare for the treatments. Unfortunately, her oncologist had differing opinions on her plan.
“My plan was to wear mittens and I actually got these special mittens to put on my hands so that I wouldn't lose my nails. I was going to put something on my hair so I wouldn't lose my hair. I had all these plants because I had done all this research,” explains Balcazar. “My oncologist was concerned if I protected any of these parts of my body from any treatment, we wouldn’t be successful at treating the cancer. I did end up losing my eyebrows, losing my hair, losing my fingernails and it was very hard for me to accept that.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, side effects of chemotherapy alone can include neutropenia, lymphedema, hair loss, nausea and vomiting, mental exhaustion, pain, blood clots and other side effects.
“When I started leaving patient appointments so that I could go throw up in the next room and then go back, and when I started hooking IVs up to my arm while at my desk, I started to realize I might need to step back to make some more progress forward.”
Although Balcazar continued working, she began focusing more on battling cancer than battling adversaries.
“(Focusing on self-treatment) is not easy to do because you've got a lot of responsibility on your shoulders and you have a lot of responsibility to represent women in the military,” said Balcazar. With women making up 17 percent of U.S. Military Forces, and the probability of one in eight women being diagnosed with breast cancer in their lives, Balcazar was hesitant to shift focus to her treatments but felt it was the right thing to do for herself and her family.
“Don't give up on yourself. Don’t give up on your family because they are also grieving,” explains Balcazar. “They're going through (the battle) too and continue throughout your life. It was a total of 13 months of treatments for me, after that I was told I needed to do five years of medical treatments, which turned into seven years, which turned into 10 years. With more studies came more recommendations.”
Balcazar’s treatment culminated in a prophylactic oophorectomy, the removal of both her ovaries, and a hysterectomy earlier this year. Following years of ongoing treatment, she was recently listed as fully deployable again.
“It was a long journey for me and it continues to be a long journey,” shares Balcazar. “I'm doing fine now, I would say that I’m in good to very good health now but it wasn't without its consequences.
“I continue to enjoy and get fulfillment for my job, so I didn't let it overtake my life even though there are times where I thought it might actually take my life,” said Balcazar. “I want to let others know; you should never suffer alone. Advocate for yourself, if you think something is wrong say something.
I know it's hard but don't give up.”