By Suzanne Ovel (Joint Base Lewis-McChord Warrior Transition BattalionApril 14, 2011
At 114 pounds, she was the thinnest she'd ever been; she knew that she was close to the edge of death.
"I was just going, and I knew I was going," said Staff Sgt. Sandy Prouty-Lemley, a Warrior with Alpha Company. She was losing her battle with cancer in September 2010. The avid food lover couldn't keep on weight and her blood pressure had plummeted.
"When you have come that close to dying and you have to face it, you have a choice. You have to be in it to win it," she said.
Just how intense that struggle would be, or that she was in a battle at all, was completely unknown when she first experienced flu-like symptoms in Iraq in 2008.
That spring when she returned to Fort Riley, Kan., though, the full weight of the breast cancer diagnosis fell upon her. (More than a year later she would be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer as well.) After that initial diagnosis, a CT scan, a biopsy and surgery, the doctors gave her some time before chemo started.
"They said we'll give you some time to heal - do what you've always wanted to do before chemo," Prouty-Lemley said. So she took her three children to her favorite place in the world - Big Sur, Calif. A world traveler who has 43 countries under her belt, Prouty-Lemley took them to the state she grew up in.
"What do I want them to see' I want them to see home," she said.
During that time, the food service specialist realized she had to turn down her dream job of culinary arts NCOIC; she simply couldn't do all that was asked.
"It's extremely hard to accept, but you can either look at it like you're a failure, which you emotionally will do, or 'OK, here are your options,' and there are plenty," she said. "I'll find something new I can be best at."
She transferred to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in September 2008 to live with her daughter, Christina, and friend, Sharon Santos, while receiving treatment in the Warrior Transition Battalion.
"(Sharon) just told me, Sandy, you're going to make it," said Prouty-Lemley.
It turned out that "making it" included getting used to a basically new body after the treatments.
"It's like I have a whole new anatomy. You have to pretend like you're a baby and try one new food at a time," Prouty-Lemley said.
With this trial-and-error method, she's gained 16 pounds. Her successful climb has been a laborious one, and she quickly points out all of the help she's received along the way, tearing up when she mentions her squad leader, Staff Sgt. Sijer Harder.
Harder bought her a walker when she was still on the waiting list for one. He brought medications to her home when she couldn't go outside in the snow. He even promised to paint the outside of her house this summer.
"He's a Soldier's Soldier, that kid. He really is," said Prouty-Lemley, 50, who joined the Army in 1990.
Help came from outside of the Army also. Two neighbors check on her daily, fellow church members help out, and she has received occupational and physical therapy at home to gain independence.
"I'm very grateful; you don't get people like that anymore. They give you hope, and if you don't have faith and you can't have hope, you'll never make it," she said.
She still gives back to others.
"She believes she's a leader and her job is to take care of Soldiers. She can't stop doing that," said Neville Lewis, Alpha Company training manager and her former sergeant major.
Despite her health issues, she led last year's WTB Thanksgiving meal, volunteers with her church and teaches junior ROTC cadets.
When she leaves the Army, she'll still teach and keep up her work of helping her church's food locker and contributing to their garden.
"The big community garden has been a life-long dream," Prouty-Lemley said.
She also hopes to climb part way up Mount Rainier one day. She could see the mountain during chemo, and swore she would climb it when she got out of the hospital - a dream that required a little faith.
That's just what she encourages in fellow Warriors.
"Have faith in yourself. You can do it," she said. "It's a choice; it truly is. It's so simple. Once you get there, it's extremely simple."