Cancer takes mother, but Air Force keeps her alive

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard
  • 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
After her son was born and her enlistment term was up, Janna' Wesley planned to get out of the U.S. Air Force.

Married to another military member at the time, the Macon, Georgia, native felt it would be difficult to balance deployments, temporary duty assignments and parenting while living away from her familial support system.

At that time, now Senior Master Sgt. Wesley, the Air Combat Command Enlisted Professional Military Education functional manager, hadn't realized the Air Force could be her support system until the most traumatic event in her life proved it to her.

After Wesley's mother, Susan Shelley, found a lump she thought was a skin irritation on her breast, she went to the doctor, and was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003. She chose to go through chemotherapy and Wesley, who was stationed in Colorado at the time, asked her mother if she wanted her to come home to Georgia to help her through it. The woman, who always looked out for others so much so that she took in struggling parents' children, said she'd be fine, and not to worry.

Susan was right.

"Everything went into remission," said Wesley of the breast cancer. "She got a clean bill of health."

In November 2004, the cancer returned. This time it was attacking Susan's liver and brain.

"It was back, and it came back with a vengeance," said Wesley of the cancer. "Unless you get a transplant or very expensive treatment, the fatality rate is high."

Susan was given six months to live, and Wesley didn't find out the amount of time left until April, her mother's last month.

Wesley knew her mother was not doing well, but her family wanted to protect Wesley. However, when she came to visit her mother before attending NCO Academy in Colorado Springs, she knew her mother wouldn't last much longer.

"I had seen her before when she had breast cancer," she said. "Then, she had lost her hair, but she still looked like my mom, and she was still as crazy as ever. She still had her attitude and her spunk about her."

This time was different.

"I flew home, and my mom didn't look anything like my mom," said Wesley recalling the 5 foot 3 inch walking ball-of-fire she described as her mother. "It threw me back. I was sad and angry because no one had prepared me for that."

While Susan was tired throughout the visit and sleeping most of the time, Wesley saw some glimpses of the woman who raised her. In the brief moments Susan was awake, she was her candid, confident self. She was the woman who raised her children to own-up-to their own mistakes and always be honest.

"When she was awake she still had her spunk and whit about her," Wesley said of the mother she knew was leaving soon.

With her Academy class start-date nearing, Wesley asked her mother if she wanted her to stay. Wesley said she could attend another NCO Academy class, but Susan said "No, you go, I'll be just fine. I'm taking my vitamins. I'll be fine."

Wesley said, "Okay, but I will stay if that's what you actually want me to do."

Her mother said, "No, you go and do what you have to do."

On Wesley's second day of class, her phone rang. It was her cousin.

"She's gone," her cousin said.

Surrounded by Airmen, who at this point in training were strangers, she took the call as gracefully as she could. Despite her efforts to hold it together, there was no hiding the news from her class.

With only a day's notice, Wesley had to scramble to buy plane tickets for her and her son.

"Plane tickets at the last minute, you can imagine the cost," she said.

She and her son made it to Macon in time for the funeral, but had to get back just as quickly as they left so she could make it back to her class.

Wesley walked back into her classroom expecting to start the class with the lesson of the day. The lesson was presented by the once strangers in her class.

"My NCO Academy class took up a collection of money because they knew that the plane tickets cost a lot," she said.

The money they collected was enough to pay for both her and her son.

"I didn't even know these people," she said. "That's when it hit me; the Air Force family -- these people really are my family. They are really here for me."

"To go through something like that and be surrounded by people who care about you - it means the world," she said. "The people I work with just rallied around me and gave me the biggest hug and support and love."

With those acts, Wesley knew the Air Force was where she belonged.

"That was a turning point for me, and it played a huge role in my reenlistment" she said. "The Air Force really showed me who it was during that time. I'm not just a number, just somebody here - I'm cared for."

Now, the Air Force is even more than she could imagine. It is the symbolic embodiment of Susan Shelley, a spunky woman who lived the Air Force core values without even knowing them. A woman who took care of her family and accepted new family members just as the Air Force does.

"The first time my mother flew on a plane was to come see me when my son turned one. During that time, I showed her around base, and to see her face light up and hear her say 'Oh, my baby is in the military,' that moment just makes me feel like every time I put on the uniform I keep her alive in that aspect. I look up and I say, 'hey mom look what I'm doing, I'm still doing it.'