AF sergeant looks cancer in eye and laughs

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Alexandria Mosness
  • 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
For most, the first time people meet the slim, brunette woman, their eyes are automatically drawn to the rigid scar that runs the length of her neckline.

If she catches you staring, she's likely to tell you her eyes are up here as she points from the scar to her eyes.

Retired Staff Sgt. Alisha Martell, was an intelligence analyst with Air Forces Central A2. Martell recently was medically retired from the Air Force after 10 years of active-duty service. Martell is a two-time thyroid cancer survivor. During cancer treatment, Martell managed to keep the most important part of herself--her positive attitude and her humor.

Martell joined the military like most hoping to travel and experience the world, she said. But the decision of what branch of service was an easy one because her parents were both in the Air Force.

"I went to college for a couple of years before I joined the Air Force," said the Acworth, Ga., native. "I wasn't taking it seriously. I was working at a dog kennel, and I realized I didn't want to do that the rest of my life."

The Dreaded "C" Word

In 2007, the young sergeant's life was changed forever.

"I had lumps on the side of my throat that had always made me feel uneasy," she explained. "The doctor said it seemed like my thyroid was enlarged. He did a biopsy on the lumps, but he didn't think it was related."

That's when the doctor came back and said it was cancer. Now, they had to see how much it spread, she said.

"The first person I ended up telling was my mom," Martell said in a rare moment of seriousness for her. "We cried. It was scary at first."

Martell's mother, two aunts had thyroid cancer and her sister and another aunt were diagnosed after Martell.

Thyroid cancer is not considered hereditary, but Martell's family is currently involved in a study where "they are trying to genetically connect that word cancer," Martell said.

When the specific results came back, it was daunting to hear.

"They had found out that I had thyroid cancer that had spread throughout my neck, which is rare because thyroid cancer is one of the slowest moving cancers," Martell said. "You hardly ever see it move from the thyroid, but it had spread throughout my neck and into my lungs."

Leaning on Laughter

For most, this news would tear them apart, but while it was hard to hear, Martell's positive attitude shined through.

"There are people out there who are worse than me, so I shouldn't really whine about it," she said. "Either you laugh about it or you cry about it, and I'd rather laugh about it."

The same comedic attitude is what others will first mention when they talk about the brown-eyed sergeant.

"She always found something funny and found a way to find some positive way to make it better, even when it came to her cancer," said her coworker Tech. Sgt. Veronica Ross. "She is every woman's best friend."

"She never acted like people with cancer or was down," said Terri Martell, Alisha's mom. "She would always say, 'We're going to be okay.' She made it easier for people to work with her. It's hard being a parent, and seeing your child go through what she did. You don't want to see her suffer. It made it a lot easier that she had a good attitude no matter what. She was the support for me."

Even though she kept her spirits high, Martell's battle has been a tough one.

Not only did Martell have surgery, but she also had to have iodine radiation. This treatment resulted in Martell irradiating her surroundings, in addition to becoming physically ill.
"When you first take the radiation, it is just a pill, and it seeps through your skin, so everything you touch becomes radiated," Martell continued. "After washing your hands, you have to clean the sink as well because porcelain absorbs things, so you are already feeling sick but then you have to clean. You have to drink as much water as you can and shower as much as you can, but then you have to clean out the tub."

A Mother's Love

Martell's mom was there through each step of her daughter's battle. Always looking at the positive in every situation, Martell was grateful for her mother.

"It was definitely a silver lining that she went through everything first," she said as her voice went up an octave when talking about her mother. "It was easier for me to prepare myself for what I was going to go through."

The Meaning of Family

Martell's support system did not just come from her mother but also her Air Force family.

When Martell came back from treatment, those in her section didn't know how to react or treat her until one Airman was able to laugh about it with her.

"It was someone I worked with and I had joked with about the scar already, so he knew joking was okay. He said Frankenstein, let me see it," she added. "So I showed him the scar and he said, 'well I can't put bolts in that.' Everybody laughed, and they saw that I was laughing, so they understood that they could joke about it. So now we all joke about it. It kind of makes things easier. It lightens up the mood a little bit being able to laugh about it."

When Martell received the devastating news that cancer had come back, her support system continued to stand fast by her side, she said.

For one surgery, Martell's supervision sat in the waiting room to support her.

"That meant a lot to me for them to do that," she said. "I'm sure their phones were on their hips, I'm sure there were things that needed to be done, but they sat with my parents."

Finding out, the cancer returned was the hardest news for Martell to hear.
"I didn't see that coming at all," she explained. "My whole family only had one surgery and that was it, so I didn't have any reason to believe it wouldn't be the same with me. After they had said it had come back, it was so out of left field, I couldn't see it coming."

Always finding the good in the bad, Martell explained how she learned from the horrible news.

"Luckily from that, I did learn to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst," she explained with a hint of irony in her voice. "Anytime I go to the doctors now I am prepared for the worst news."

Beating the Odds

Martell endured numerous surgeries where doctors took out all of her lymph nodes in her neck, her right jugular and lymph nodes in her chest.

For one surgery, they didn't even know if the vibrant woman, who relies so much on her voice, would be able to speak again.

"Even now when they look at my vocal nerve, one vocal nerve is completely dead," she said. "I technically should not be able to talk. The other vocal chord is compensating for it."

"It is probably because I talk too much," she said while laughing.

Martell's best friend did try and prepare for the worst-case scenario of her losing her voice - however, it just turned into another laughing matter.

"I tried to learn sign language," Martell explained. "My best friend bought two sets of sign language books and sign language cards. Um, we kind of procrastinated, and it turned into just finding fun things to sign at work."

Life Lessons

"The best advice I ever received was to allow myself to feel sorry for myself, then to get over it," she said sensibly. "It definitely has taught me that I can persevere. I can do it. It's a lot easier to do it with people around you, but there are going to be moments where it's just you. It has taught me that I am strong enough to be able to handle anything."

Martell has a constant reminder that sometimes life is uncontrollable.

"My tattoo with the thyroid ribbon and cross reminds me it is out of my control," she said as she looked down at the small tattoo inscribed across her wrist. "I do what I can with it, but ultimately it's out of my hands."

Letting Go

With not being able to permanently change stations or deploy, Martell knew she wouldn't be able to advance anymore in her career, she said.

"Being the supervisor of so many Airmen who have come through and once they deploy, they come back and know more than me, so I knew it was time to leave, especially when it stifles my career. I love my job."

"It's definitely bittersweet," she said remorsefully. "I love the military."

As Martell ended the military chapter in her life, she didn't want a big deal made about her retirement.

"She didn't feel like she deserved it because she hadn't done the 20 years," her mom explained. "Yes, she did! With everything she has been through, she deserves it. She loved being in the Air Force."

A New Chapter

Martell has been cancer-free for about ten months, she said. She will have to go to the doctors for the rest of her life to keep up with it being gone for good. Martell runs a higher risk for other cancers, but her prognosis is positive at this point.

"My hope and wishes for her are that she stays cancer free, that she moves on with her life from the Air Force and starts a new life," her mother said while trying to keep her voice from breaking. "The biggest thing I hope is that she stays happy."

Martell stood at attention one last time during her retirement ceremony as the pomp and circumstance followed. She dropped her last salute, and let out a boisterous laugh.