Weathering the storm: Langley Airman reflects on resiliency, inner strength

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class R. Alex Durbin
  • 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Editor's note: This article is a part of a series about Service members' stories of resilience.

"I decided to fight because I wanted to be in control," said Rashida Mahoney. "I wasn't going to let anything stand in the way of my life."

Determined to be the master of her own fate, Mahoney, a U.S. Air Force technical sergeant stationed at Langley Air Force Base, elected to undergo a life-altering surgery that could offer her the chance at a future.

A future left uncertain after a discovery on the afternoon of April 30, 2013.

The battle begins

After performing a self examination on a whim, Mahoney felt a dime-sized mass in her breast and called her doctor at U.S. Air Force Hospital Langley. After an ultrasound, biopsy and two weeks of waiting, Mahoney's doctor had some grim news.

At 29 years old, Mahoney was diagnosed with a form of stage 2 breast cancer.

"When you get diagnosed with a serious illness like cancer, everything goes through your mind," said Mahoney. "It felt like the floor dropped out from under me."

As a person with the constant desire to be in control of her own destiny, Mahoney said the news was a blow.

"My initial response was frustration," she said. "I thought I was in great health, and there is no history of cancer on either side of my family. I was angry this could happen."

She said the chaos continued over the next few days through a whirlwind of medical appointments.

That was just the beginning of her journey.

The first fray

According to the National Cancer Institute, the risk factor for breast cancer increases with age. Due to the fact Mahoney is relatively young for a cancer patient, her doctors said she had an aggressive form of the disease, and it was necessary to act fast.

"I had to make several important decisions in a short amount of time," she said. "It was stressful and I fell into a negative downturn, but I knew I couldn't give up."

Just a week after her diagnosis and meetings with various doctors and surgeons, Mahoney opted to receive a lumpectomy, a common, non-invasive surgical procedure designed to remove a cancerous tumor without removing the entire breast.

After the surgery, the medical staff sent the removed tissue to a laboratory to determine Mahoney's pathology. A few days later, the results were sent back and it was determined the surgery did not remove all of the cancerous cells.

"It felt like all control was taken away again," Mahoney said. "It was overwhelming, but I wasn't going to let it beat me."

A few days later, Mahoney decided to undergo a double mastectomy, an operation to completely remove a patient's breasts in an attempt to halt the spread of cancerous growth.

"It was hard to make the decision," she said. "I wanted to prevent [my cancer] from coming back. I wanted to take control and if I'm going to be a cancer survivor, [I want it] to be a one-time thing."

Mahoney said the six weeks of convalescent leave following the surgery were difficult.

"I couldn't drive or even raise my arms above my shoulders," she said "It wasn't the pain that was hard; it was having to depend on the others around me."

In August, just a little more than three months after her original diagnosis, the medical staff said the cancer was completely removed, but recommended Mahoney receive chemotherapy.

"[The news] was a huge relief," said Mahoney. "It meant all of my sacrifices weren't in vain."

Standing firm with family

Although her hardest choice was behind her and plenty of challenges lay ahead, Mahoney had to face one of her harshest trials yet.

It was time to tell her daughter Kiara.

Although Mahoney's 8-year-old daughter knew a little about her condition, Kiara was with her father in New York the majority of the time Mahoney spent combating her cancer.

Now that Kiara returned to prepare for the upcoming school year, Mahoney wanted to share her scars with her daughter and reassure her they could handle what lay ahead

"I never dealt with cancer before, so I was unsure how to explain it all," said Mahoney. "I was scared. I was probably more afraid of telling her than facing my illness."

Mahoney said she didn't let the fear get the best of her, and with advice from the school counselor, she broke the news.

"I just didn't want [Kiara] to associate sickness with death," she said. "I just wanted her to know everything was going to be okay."

Although her daughter was away for the majority of her treatment, Mahoney said she did not face it alone - her other family stepped in. After learning of her condition, Mahoney said her fellow Airmen at the 439th Supply Chain Operations Group also threw their support behind her.

"My co-workers are extremely supportive," said Mahoney, a 439th SCOG stock control supervisor. "If I ever need anything, all I need to do is ask."

Mahoney said her family and her "Air Force family" are an integral part to managing her condition.

"It's important to have the right people around you. I'm lucky to have those people around me and I couldn't do it without them," she said. "Family isn't just about blood relation - you can [also] choose your family."

Coping with chemo

Now, just more than halfway complete with her eight chemotherapy cycles, Mahoney said she has had to change her routine to accommodate the side effects of her treatments.

"I receive steroids along with the chemotherapy drugs, so for the first day and a half after the treatment I'm wired," she said. "The day after the injection, I crash. It hits at noon every time, just like clockwork."

Mahoney said her energy spikes and dips occur often after the energetic period immediately following the treatment.

"I can be walking through the grocery store and all of a sudden, I crash," said Rashida Mahoney. "My daughter has to take my hand and practically pull me at times."

Mahoney said the lack of energy is far from the only physical toll her treatments have taken. As predicted by her doctor weeks before, Mahoney's hair began to fall out after her second treatment.

"It started as a few strands on my pillow or shoulder," she said. "I started to avoid touching my hair at all so it wouldn't fall out faster."

Once again eager to take the reins of her condition, Mahoney made the decision to shave her head to prevent her disease from taking something else away.

"I held on as long as possible, but I didn't want it looming over [me,]" she said. "It was emotional, but I was going to adapt and overcome."
Despite these tolls, Mahoney feels it's important to maintain a positive attitude.

"Optimism is something you create," she said. "There may be a day when everything comes crashing around you, and a positive outlook can make the difference."

Fighting for the future

"Resiliency is all about preparation," she said. "It's like repairing your roof before it rains, because one day, it's going to storm."

Mahoney said resiliency has helped her stay strong and it's important for every Service member to be ready for what could lie ahead.

"This experience has tested me, but I'm going to keep fighting and I'm going to get better," said Mahoney. "I'm not fighting to not die, I'm fighting to live - and giving up is not an option."

Although Mahoney's battle with breast cancer is far from over, she said she has not given up her will to continue. With her birthday nearing in November, Mahoney will celebrate the first birthday since she received the life-altering news, and with her fighting spirit and resolve, Mahoney said it certainly won't be her last.