Breast Cancer Awareness is more than a month

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Katherine Holt
  • 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Six years ago on October 20, the day before her 40th birthday, Kerry McLeary was given bad news.

"The diagnosis came out of left field," said McLeary. "It was shocking."

McLeary had been breast-feeding her child when she suddenly stopped producing milk on the left side and felt a lump. She had assumed this was a clogged milk duct.

As a career Naval officer and mother of three, she was a typical working mom who was trying to juggle a job, family and all the responsibilities of daily life. She did not always put her health first, and did not have time to deal with this new issue. So she blew it off for a few months.

"Key word: 'blew it off,'" she said. "It started growing. It grew to the size of a large nut."

It was only because of her upcoming 40th birthday that McLeary decided to schedule a mammogram.

"My cancer was less common than most," she said. "Triple Negative cancer tends to be more aggressive, and have a higher recurrence rate, the doctors informed me."

McLeary started treatment right away. She had surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

The moment she received the news that the cancer had started spreading to her lymph nodes is when she started to feel as though she was not going to be alive much longer, and not going to see that baby grow up. That was probably the lowest point in her journey.

Then she started researching and realized her diagnosis wasn't necessarily a death sentence if it was caught early enough. After a year of treatment the doctor came to her with some good news.

"The doctor miraculously said 'It is all gone. There is no evidence of tumor.'" said McLeary.


Twenty-two years ago Judy Shepherd was being proactive. She went in for her baseline mammogram at 40, just like all doctors say to do. Everything was fine. She went again two years later right on schedule.

"The radiologist at Fairfax County Hospital saved my life," said Shepherd. "He saw a change and said it was small and wanted to just wait and see what happens."

When she took a colleague to a chemo session, her colleague convinced her to get another mammogram. Shepherd did just that.

"I got a call," she said. "There was another change. The doctor just wanted to go in and take a look to see what it was."

A biopsy was done.

"The doctor came in and said, 'It's bilateral invasive carcinoma,'" said Shepherd. "I didn't know what that meant."

It was breast cancer.

"Everyone was shocked," said Shepherd. "It was super early detection. If I had waited until it was a lump, it might have been stage IV."

Because it was found so early, Shepherd only needed six months of light chemotherapy and she was cancer free.


For Kelly Racela, it started a little over a year ago with a pain above her right breast.

"My son found it actually," she said. "He kept elbowing me, and it hurt. One day I stuck my hand on it, and I poked around at it for a month or two."

Racela finally called and made an appointment. It only took two and a half weeks to get her diagnosis.

"I have never had anything in my life that I couldn't change," she said. "So when I got the results, it was so heavy."

Racela had three surgeries, six chemotherapy treatments, radiation and is now on a five-year oral chemotherapy.

"I am what they call a young survivor," she said.

Then and now

These three survivors each have a different story, but all agree that this disease changed their life.

"I know it sounds crazy, but this disease saved my life," said Racela. "I live now."

McLeary's diagnosis gave her the opportunity to speak up, reach out and help other women.

"I started talking to people," she said. "It seemed that everyone I talked to knew someone or was affected by breast cancer in some way."

McLeary started the Rheinland Breast Cancer Coalition in 2009 to reach out to survivors in the KMC.

"With the help of Andi Schwartz, one of the nurses in Oncology at LRMC and a few recently-diagnosed women, we got this club off the ground," she said. "It is a great place to congregate and talk about things only survivors can understand."

She has tried to keep the focus of the group light, positive and fun. It is about embracing life, as well as supporting newly diagnosed women as they go through their own journeys with the disease.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month is more than wearing pink and hosting runs. It is about getting educated and taking steps toward early detection and prevention.

"Young women need to be doing their exams," said Shepherd. "At 40 you need a baseline, not 50. I truly believe if I would have waited, I would be dead."

"You aren't in charge of your destiny," said McLeary. "It is what you do with today that matters."