If you missed part I of the Hemphill's military story, please click here. Then you can return to read Part II below.
Hello everyone! I’m just going to dive right in because this part can get pretty lengthy. We left off with my family moving to Guam in October of 2012. Thankfully we were able to find a house on base quickly and could move in just a few days after we arrived. We settled in, the kids started school, Brandon started work and we were enjoying our life. It was going to be our first Christmas without any family and that was hard because reality was hitting for the kids and I around that time, but we were just glad to be a family again.
Things went along like normal and we had even decided to start the process to adopt. It was something we had always wanted to do, but big things would get in the way and we never had the chance to start. We found an agency, had appointments and things were starting to move. Then, in March, Brandon came home in the middle of the afternoon and I could tell it wasn’t good. He told me that he was picked up for deployment. It had only been 8 months since he had finished a remote tour and he would be leaving again in May for 6+ months. Talk about a kick in the gut! We fought it. His coworkers fought it. People we didn’t know that were stationed at other bases fought it. We couldn’t figure out how in the world this could be happening. He was supposed to be with us for at least 18 months before he could deploy. And Guam was supposed to be a “safer” base. Wrong. The higher ups apologized and said they would make sure that he would not be deployed again during the rest of our time in Guam. I remember telling Brandon that there had to be a reason all of this was happening and we just needed to trust God had His hands in the whole thing. We decided that we would all fly back to the States to visit with family before he left and then the kids and I would stay until July and head back to Guam with my mom.
On May 16th, we boarded a plane and made the 24 hour trip back to Alabama. We were so excited to see our family and I couldn’t wait to meet my newest nephew that was born about a week after we moved to Guam. A week after we were back in the States we found out why God had put this crazy plan into motion. We found a lump in my breast. We didn’t think too much of it at first, well, neither one of us wanted to say we thought too much, so we kept the freaking out to ourselves. We wanted to wait and see if it went away. Of course that lasted about 2 days. I emailed my mom and she told my dad. (He’s a general surgeon and deals with breast cancer patients a lot.) He called me while we were in Georgia visiting family who were getting together to have a party before Brandon left. We spent the morning of the party trying to make appointments for me to see someone on base and get it checked asap. Brandon left the next morning for Afghanistan.
I saw the base doctor on a Tuesday, she sent me to have a mammogram and, if needed, an ultrasound. She said it was probably nothing, but since I have a strong history of breast cancer in the family she wanted to have it checked. The mammogram showed the lump, but it was so tiny I needed the ultrasound. The tech was really quiet and took lots of pictures. She said that she wanted the doctor to come and look at it. He took a turn with the ultrasound and said that he really needed a biopsy to get a better look at what was there. (Longest 2 hours of my life waiting for that referral to go through!) He took a few samples and I went on my way. To give you a better idea of what we saw, lumps typically look one of two ways: cancerous is typically a solid black mass with jagged edges, while a fibrous lump is “striped” with smooth edges. Mine was solid black and had smooth edges, plus it was less than 1 cm, making it even harder to tell what was actually there. Seriously? Thankfully the doctor took a whole lot of photos and did notice that I had a tiny area that looked a little jagged on the edge. This is why he wanted to do the biopsy. Well, he called me the next day and said that the tests came back negative, but he wasn’t comfortable with that because of the area he thought looked jagged, and asked if I would mind doing another biopsy. So I went back the next day and he took twice as many samples as before. This time they found something. My heart sank.
The following week I had a PET scan and met with an oncologist. The good news was that everything came back negative and the cancer I had was not what you typically found in a healthy 35 year old. It’s what you find in someone who is 80 years old. It was not aggressive, I would not need chemo, I would only need radiation if I chose to do a lumpectomy and I was told me that this was going to be more of an inconvenience to my family than anything else. He said that if he had to write a cancer story for someone, it would be mine. Whew! (Wait, huh??) After talking with Brandon we decided to do a double mastectomy with reconstruction. I met with a general surgeon and a plastic surgeon and we set up the date for my surgery. Brandon’s commander in Afghanistan gave him permission to come home and be with me for two weeks. He made it back the night of July 4th in his uniform. Best 4th of July ever.
I had my surgery on a Monday morning. It went really well and the doctors were very pleased with everything. I had 2 drains put on each side and the goal was to have them taken out as soon as possible. My family and husband REALLY stepped up and took care of the kids and I. I don’t think Brandon and I have laughed that much in years! (I’m sure the pain medication had nothing to do with me finding everything so funny.) After a week I had the first set of drains taken out. I was moving around as much as I could because I was told that activity was the best way to get my body back in shape. Two weeks after surgery, I was healing fine so the kids and I moved up to my parents’house. I was set to gosee my plastic surgeon once a week to have my temporary implants “pumped up” (you have to stretch everything out slowly so your body can prepare for the permanent implants) and the first round went great. I was hardly in any pain (valium is your best friend sometimes) and thought, “Man! The kids and I are going to be back in Guam in no time!”I also had the last set of drains removed. I was feeling really good about my recovery.
The next week I went back and we decided to add a little bit more and make it my last session. Big mistake. I thought I was going to die. I could barely breathe it hurt so bad.I had to remain upright and sleep sitting straight up on the couch for a week. It hurt, but I was determined to not have to go back again.I wanted to get to the waiting period so I could have my final surgery and get back to Guam.
When I went back to see my plastic surgeon I was cleared to wait a month before coming back to book my last surgery, but he noticed a pocket of fluid along my left breast. He drained it and had it tested for bacteria/staph. It came back negative. He wanted to see me again in a couple days to make sure it was still ok. It wasn’t. This went on for about 2 ½ weeks. Every time I would see him there would be more fluid and not just in that one spot, it was collecting under my left breast as well. Then one night I was getting ready for bed and noticed that a bubble had formed under the incision under my right breast. I ran to show my dad and he covered it with gauze and called the doctor the next morning. (The biggest advantage I had was my dad knew which doctors I would work well with and already had them on speed dial because he works with them on almost a weekly basis.) I already had an appointment to see my doctor that Monday so when I went in he just looked defeated. He decided to put an open drain in at both breasts in hopes my body would just let all the fluid out and heal on it’s own. It didn’t happen. I went back a few days later andsince things hadn’t improved he gave me the bad news that we needed to open me back up and see what was going on. So we booked the surgery for a Tuesday morning. This way I wouldn’t have to go all day without eating.
Over the weekend I began to feel light headed and would have to stop and lie down several times a day. My dad would check my heart rate and not say anything. I was set to see my doctor on Monday morning (sort of a pre-op visit) and he did not like that I sounded short of breath and that my heart was racing. He wanted to do a CT to check for a blood clot and do the surgery that afternoon. Problem was, I didn’t have much to drink that day and I have bad veins anyway, so trying to start an IV turned out to be a 2 ½ hour process that involved numerous sticks, most of which would blow and resulted in being wheeled to the surgery center for them to try in my neck. They got it, but when they took me for the CT the dye blew in my neck because my veins were so bad. It burns, in case you are wondering, but does go away. They had to stick me in the other side of my neck and decided to give me a bag of fluid before doing anything else. I was nicknamed pin cushion. Awesome. They did a CT and thankfully didn’t find anything, so off to surgery I went. People, I don’t tell you all of that to freak you out, but to tell you that you need to make sure you drink LOTS of water if you even think you will be stuck for anything. I don’t drink lots of fluids anyway and tend to be more on the dehydrated side. I should know better. But I felt so bad that I didn’t want to eat or drink anything. While in surgery my doctor noticed that the implants were actually starting to press my ribcage in and that is why I was having a hard time breathing. I had notice the bottom of my ribcage was pointier than I thought it should be earlier that week and was concerned, but never thought this was the reason why. I feel that I need to point out that I am barely 5’3” and weigh 105 lbs. I’m smaller than the average person and I was trying to do above average things to my body so I could get it over with sooner. I went home that night with two more drains added to my body and told that I needed to eat more because I was borderline malnourished. I had been on antibiotics for a couple weeks that made me feel awful and had to avoid certain foods so they could work. The doctor told me to ignore that and eat anything and everything I could.
I went back for my post-op visit a couple days later and I got more bad news. They found out it was a rare, slow growing bacteria and the only way to get rid of it was to take out the temporary implants, wait six months and then start the process all over again. It was the end of August by now and I was supposed to be going home in a couple weeks. We decided to do the surgery in a week to give me time to heal from the surgery I just had. By Sunday night I was in so much pain at the drain sites I could barely breathe or move. It took both my parents to help me get up and down. My dad called my doctor,who he happened to be on call that weekend, and told me to come in right away. They hooked me up to some IV’s (only took one shot this time) and I finally felt some comfort. I had my surgery the next morning. It was Labor Day and the hospital was so quiet.
The next two weeks were really rough for me mentally and emotionally. I have never felt so defeated before. I didn’t want to get out of bed or shower or do anything. I would just start crying throughout the day. My chest looked mutilated and the stitches were like barbed wire poking me through my shirt. I just wanted to go home with my kids and have my husband there to hold me. He had been so supportive and amazing through this whole process. He was frustrated just like I was, but for being so far away while all this was going on, he handled it really well. I missed him so much!
We decided that the best option for our family was to do a humanitarian PCS back to Alabama so that I could finish out my recovery as a family. Thankfully my parents talked me into enrolling the kids in school here and they only missed the first week. Everyone Brandon worked with in Afghanistan and in Guam were very supportive of us moving back and helped make it all happen quickly. He finished up his deployment, went back to Guam to pack us up and was back with us by the beginning of November. We have moved into a rental house and the kids will be starting another new school in January. It breaks my heart that we have had to do all of this, but I can’t help but think what could have happened if Brandon never had to deploy. Would we still have found the lump and if we had, they can’t treat it in Guam, so where would they have sent me? The closest base is a 7 hour flight away. So, all I can do is thank God that He knew what He was doing and that He made all of it happen the way it did. Yes, I could have done without the 10 different drains (my sides had polka dots) and the random bacteria and my ribs being crushed and the nausea and dehydration, but God brought me to a place where I literally couldn’t breathe or move without His help. I’m on the mend and waiting for round two. I couldn’t have made it through any of this without the love and support of my family and of the most amazing friends from all over the world! I had cards and gifts and emails from people I haven’t seen in years to people living on tiny islands on the other side of the world. I know that God isn’t finished with me yet and I hope and pray that I just keep my eyes focused on Him so I’m ready for whatever ride He takes me on.
I continue to look for stories of military families to share on my Blog -- striving to share with Americans what life is like for military families. If you have story you'd like to share, please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.