Story by Airman 1st Class Laura Weaver, 136th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
NAVAL AIR STATION JOINT RESERVE BASE FORT WORTH, Texas - “Riddle me this: It feels as hard as a rock, but it can spread like jelly,” said Texas Air National Guard Maj. Adrienne Saint, Logistics Readiness Officer at the 136th Airlift Wing (136 AW). “It’s not edible, but it can eat you.”
Saint has a five-year life-changing story to embody the answer: breast cancer.
Saint’s journey began in December 2015 when she went to a primary care physician at Fort Belvoir, Va., to get a routine mammogram. At the time, Saint, 45, was serving her 15th year in the Air Force on an Active Duty tour at the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Va.
One month later, Saint completed her tour and was back to her normal routine at home in Fort Worth, Texas. She just started a new job at the 136 AW Inspector General’s (IG) office, bought a new house and was awaiting a promotion. She had all but forgotten her appointment until she received a voicemail from Fort Belvoir informing her that her images were “distorted” along with a letter suggesting she seek a follow-up appointment.
It was May 2016 before Saint reached out to make an appointment with her local primary care physician, just shortly before she discovered a lump herself for the first time. When her doctor referred her for another mammogram, Saint shared the message she had received from Fort Belvoir with the nurses.
“My original thought was they didn’t do the mammogram right and my images were just messed up,” said Saint. “And they said, ‘No, that means something is wrong with you… You’re distorted.’”
After the second mammogram came an ultrasound, and then finally the diagnosis: breast cancer.
“Time stood still for a minute,” said Saint. “Those are words you don’t expect to hear. When the doctor left, the nurse kept saying, ‘It’s okay. You can cry. You can breathe.’ But I was just frozen.”
“I had nobody,” continued Saint. “I didn’t know anybody that had ever had breast cancer. I had no support. Once I left the facility, I barely made it to my car. I felt so weak, and I just sat in my car because I couldn’t even drive home.”
Soon after the initial discussion, Saint’s biopsy came back positive confirming the doctor’s diagnosis. She had been keeping her struggle a secret, but she finally began to break the news to her friends and family in August 2016.
“I had my new house, my new job, my grandma passed, and I even had this massive promotion party at work,” said Saint. “So all of this was going on while I’m trying to face this, and nobody knew.”
She also knew it was time to say something to her coworkers. The task, however, wasn’t so simple for her. The 136 IG was a team of all males.
“They were shocked when they found out, but they were understanding,” said Saint. “They all have wives, and some of them have daughters, so I think they had a lot of compassion. But I think as long as I put it out of sight and out of mind, it was out of sight and out of mind for others too.”
The stage-2 cancer was a mutated estrogen hormone that had developed into a slow-growing mass called an Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC). After exploring her options with her doctor, Saint opted to have a full bilateral mastectomy that September, followed by four reconstructive surgeries spanning over the next 18 months.
“After five major surgeries in 18 months, I can truly say I’m a rebuilt 1974 Ford Pinto made in Texas,” said Saint.
After her first surgery — the mastectomy — Saint found comfort in simply getting back into a sense of normalcy.
“When I left the hospital that day, I wore a new pair of heels,” said Saint. “Ironically, I don’t like the color pink, but to celebrate, I bought a pair of burgundy-colored heels with a t-shirt that said ’drunk off my t**s,’ and that’s what I wore out of the hospital with my hair and makeup done. And every day after that during my recovery, I got up, I brushed my hair, and I put on my makeup before I left my room. My mom kind of laughed at me and said, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘Why not? This is my normalcy. I can’t do anything else, but if I look in the mirror and look good, then that makes me feel good.’”
While the mastectomy was successful, a complete recovery didn’t happen overnight. It was a lengthy process for the new Air Force major as she worked to overcome not only the obvious physical challenges, but also her internal struggles as she progressed through the reconstructive surgeries.
“The pain doesn’t stop,” said Saint. “It’s a long term thing: the numbness from the lymph nodes being removed, the swelling that comes along with it, the loss of my body parts, and having something foreign put in my body that’s not natural or real. I felt like my womanhood was taken away from me, and it felt like a loss of control of a lot of things. The recovery was hard because of the pain, but I think what was harder was not being able to do anything for myself. I couldn’t move, and I couldn’t even lift. I’ve lived on my own for 20 years, and it was hard to come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t even get my own glass of water.”
In between her surgeries, Saint pushed herself by immersing herself in her job. Though her male coworkers in IG were supportive, she was determined not to fall behind and tried to keep a heavy workload as much as she could.
“I was working with all males, and I felt like I had something to prove,” said Saint. “I was trying to prove to everyone that just because this happened, I could still work harder. There was the guilt of leaving work and the fear of getting behind. So I buried myself in my work. I was on leave for so long in between every surgery, and I kept telling myself, ‘I’m in the military and I have to get back to my job.’ Instead of healing, I was trying to rush back to work. But it’s a mourning process, and those are things I didn’t realize at first.”
Saint’s friends and coworkers at the 136 AW recognized her struggle and made efforts to be there for her as much as they could. Several of them were able to bring her lunch during her recovery and check on her at home. The wing commander and Saint’s supervisor visited her at the hospital during one of her surgeries. The Force Support Squadron Airmen even brought over Long John Silver’s because she was craving it.
Saint’s network of friends across the country also found ways to help from afar.
“A lot of my friends are in different states, partly because I’m in the military and partly because I’m originally from California. There are a lot of connections I’ve made throughout the years, and we’ve all stayed in touch. One of my girlfriends in California was able to contact my closest friends through an email I sent previously, and she set up a meal plan for me. I had no idea, but when I got home from the hospital, everyone had signed up to cover two weeks of my meals. My friends from other states ordered from a delivery service, and my local friends brought something over.”
Saint’s last surgery was in March 2018. She just hit her four-year mark of being cancer-free in September of this year. The most emotional part for Saint now is reflecting on how far she’s come since the beginning of her journey. As her bright eyes welled up with tears, Saint had a piece of advice for the past version of herself who felt so alone and exhausted in her battle.
“I would tell her it’s okay to take time off and heal,” she said. “Everybody kept telling me, ‘You’ve got this’ and ‘You’re strong.’ I felt like I couldn’t feel, and I harbored so many emotions because I was trying to be strong. But it’s okay to feel, and it’s okay to be weak.”
This is also the advice Saint gives to those who reach out to her when their loved ones are going through similar situations.
“The words of advice I give to those people are to let them feel,” said Saint. “If they’re angry, if they’re sad … just support whatever they are feeling and let them feel that. It’s human nature that when someone comes to you with a problem, you want to relate. But it’s important to be a good listener and to let that person talk.”
Though Saint initially kept her struggle a secret, she is now outspoken about her battle with breast cancer in an effort to be a voice of encouragement and support for others who need it.
“The reason I’m willing to share my story is not because I’m asking for sympathy or attention, but because maybe, if I can be brave enough to speak out, this might be my blessing to the next person,” said Saint. “I believe my breast cancer was to be part of some greater good.”
The answer to Saint’s initial riddle is just two small words that don’t express with justice the war stories of Saint and thousands of other women who have or are currently struggling with breast cancer. But her story illustrates a counter to the riddle of breast cancer with two other powerful words: hope and resiliency.
“We’re stronger for it in the end,” said Saint. “It’s our story. Embrace the scars because we have to live with it, and we can beautify it because everyone’s a little bit bent. We’re not broken — we’re all just a little bit bent.”