HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- --
“I stood up and the first thing (my boss) saw was this flamingo rising above the computer monitor,” said Dawn Wilder, 49th Medical Group quality risk manager. “I wore a wig once to work, and (my boss) looked at me and said, ‘the wig is okay, but I miss the hat.’ I said, ‘that’s great because the wig is scratchy.’ I still (wear the hats) occasionally, because it makes people laugh.”
Dawn Wilder could be described as a spunky, vivacious woman with a refreshing zest for life. Standing at about 5 foot 4 inches, her exuberant smile lights up the high ceilings of the 49th MDG building. What she lacks in height, she makes up for in spirit.
Wilder attended the 49 MDG’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month Celebration, October 25, 2018, at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. The event was organized to start a conversation about breast cancer, how you can lessen your chances and what your options are if you are diagnosed.
“It’s important so we can bring awareness to the importance of being screened for breast cancer,” said Lt. Col. Debra Smith, 49th MDG women’s health element chief. “A lot of people don’t want to do mammograms because they hear horror stories, but I always tell people in that short period of pain you are preventing the consequences of years of pain.”
Smith suggests women start getting annual mammograms at age 40, but she urges women to start performing self-breast exams as early as age 20.
“The things people do in their teen years and early 20’s will affect them for the rest of their lives,” said Smith. “When you’re doing a breast exam, you’re looking for what’s normal for your breast. Look for skin changes, color changes, texture changes, and any lumps or swelling. I’m happy if you do it twice a year, just as long as you know what’s normal for your breast.”
Breast cancer typically affects women age 50 and over, but performing self-checks earlier helps establish what is normal for your body. Through regular self-checks, Wilder was able to identify when a change occurred with her breast.
“I’m very blessed, because when I found my cancer it was stage one,” said Wilder. “I was in the kitchen with my husband cooking dinner and I had a very sharp pain in my left breast. I went to feel it and it was swollen, red, tender to the touch and warm. My first thought, as a nurse, was well this is just an infected little cyst.”
According to the American Cancer Society, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Despite thinking it was a minor cyst, Wilder knew she needed to take this symptom seriously.
“I had a good friend and co-worker who had been through breast cancer so I knew that I couldn’t take any chances,” said Wilder. “I went and saw my women’s health practitioner the very next day. She agreed that it looked like a cyst, but we were going to treat it like it was cancer.”
Wilder was scheduled for a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound, to gain a deeper understanding of what her body was telling her.
“As I was watching the ultrasound, I said a very bad word which I don’t normally say,” said Wilder. “I’m not good at reading these things but I know what a cyst looks like – and that’s not a cyst.”
Wilder’s years of medical training, and experience as an emergency room and critical care nurse alerted her to the fact that her image did not look normal. Her radiologist, then ordered a biopsy of the suspicious lump.
“We had to do an ultrasound guided biopsy, and it hurt like hell,” said Wilder. “Don’t let anyone ever tell you the biopsy doesn’t hurt. (After my results came in) my doctor called and asked if I was sitting down. I said, ‘yes, just spit it out.’ She goes, ‘it’s positive, you have cancer.’”
The Marine-raised, Air Force veteran describes herself as someone who does not cry easily. She was now faced with a challenge she did not feel prepared for, and tears laced with confusion and fear began to pour from her eyes.
“The very first thing was why me,” said Wilder. “The next thing was, I didn’t want to hang up this phone and tell my husband what the doctor had just said. I didn’t really have to, he just knew.”
Wilder began her treatment at the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center, with the support of her husband by her side.
“I took my husband to every single one of my appointments, I don’t think he could have stayed home anyway,” said Wilder. “You need a second person there because you’re in shock for a few months. To have someone else there who’s listening and asking questions for you and helping you remember is important.”
First, Wilder’s tumor was removed from her breast and then she volunteered to be part of a radiation treatment study. She underwent radiation treatment twice a day for a week. A small device was inserted into her breast and delivered the radiation directly to the affected area. This form of treatment lessens the chances of radiation burns, which are very common with other, older methods.
“About six weeks later, I started my chemo,” said Wilder. “I had four chemo treatments, three weeks apart. Chemo sucks, so four was enough.”
It was after the start of her chemo therapy that Wilder faced her next challenge.
“It’s not going to be if you lose your hair, it’s going to be when,” said Wilder. “When I lost it the first time, it started coming out in clumps. I have a husband who loves me no matter what, so (that didn’t matter), and I look pretty good bald. Who knew?”
Wilder considers herself lucky for not losing her eyelashes and eyebrows, and with her new Mr. Clean inspired look, she began to experiment with accessories as she returned to work.
“I wore hats to work,” said Wilder. “When I say hats, I have a crazy hat collection.”
From flamingos to narwhals, Wilder broke out her flamboyant and eclectic hat collection. She found her hats brightened not only her spirit, but the spirits of those around her.
“Laughter truly is the best medicine,” said Wilder. “It really makes you feel better, and it releases all sorts of chemicals in your body that help with your attitude. I’ve never been one of those people who sat around saying, ‘woe is me.’ I don’t have time for that.”
Wilder is now celebrating her third year of being cancer free.
“Studies show my cancer has a medium to high risk of reoccurring,” said Wilder. “I take a medicine now that takes your estrogen level to zero, which means I’m in permanent menopause. I have to take it for a total of 10 years, and I have eight to go. There’s a give and take every time you do any kind of medicine.”
Wilder does everything she can to prevent her cancer from returning, despite the uncomfortable side-effects.
“I owe it to my family and myself to do everything I can to prevent it from coming back,” said Wilder “I’ve never known how to tell people what keeps you going, because I’ve never known how not to keep going.”