Aviano breast cancer survivor shares story

Senior Master Sgt. Michelle Sobel

Senior Master Sgt. Michelle Sobel

Aviano Air Base, Italy -- Story of Senior Master Sgt. Michelle Sobel as told to Senior Airman Sarah Gregory

Prior history - My grandmother was diagnosed and so was my aunt on my mother's side, so breast cancer was something that was prevalent in our family. In November of 1998, I had done a breast self-exam and noticed a change. After visiting the doctor, I was told exactly what I had feared: I was 36 years old, and I had breast cancer. 

The discovery - The doctor noticed something during his exam and scheduled me for a mammogram. I knew the news wasn't good because by the time I had made it back from my appointment, I had already been called by the hospital. The mammogram showed calcifications, which is an indicator of potential cancer. I went back for another appointment, this time a biopsy. Immediately the doctors could tell something wasn't right. 

The biopsy results showed I had intraductal cancer, which meant it was in my milk ducts. At that point the doctors didn't know if it had spread any further. I had to go see a surgeon and a plastic surgeon, because there was the potential for a mastectomy. 

Facing reality - When I got the initial diagnosis, I sat there stunned. I wanted to just get it out of me. It's scary walking around, knowing you have cancer. 

Visiting the plastic surgeon was very traumatic because they actually show you pictures of people who had mastectomies, and they weren't very pretty. I just wanted to run out of there screaming because you see pictures of people with no breasts or reconstruction that doesn't look very good. I was young and single and that's a pretty hard thing to deal with. I couldn't even decide at that time what I wanted done. I did a little bit of research on my own and then went back to talk to the surgeon. This time I settled on a particular type of reconstruction. 

Treatment - I had no other options other than a mastectomy because the cancer was so large at that point. I had noticed something not right for years and kept pointing it out but I never had a mammogram. At the time, if your mother hadn't had breast cancer, doctors didn't recommend having a mammogram until age 40. Now, if anyone in your family has had breast cancer, they do mammograms at age 35. 

The option I chose was to have the mastectomy and the reconstruction done at the same time. I came out not missing anything so it was less stressful. It's more traumatic to have a mastectomy, wait, then have reconstructive surgery. 

The doctors also took some lymph nodes out to see if my cancer had spread. My mother stayed the whole time with me to take care of my daughter, who was 8 at the time. My mother being there helped me not worry about my daughter, and allowed me to concentrate on just taking care of myself. 

When the results came back, they showed that out of 15 lymph nodes, none had signs of cancer. That was amazing, and it was a turning point for me. I was like OK, I'm done with this. Basically in my mind I had beaten cancer. For awhile I had a mammogram every six months and I was on a cancer-prevention drug for five years, but I was cancer free. 

When I look back, I was so lucky and blessed. I was young and healthy and everything turned out fantastic. 

Bittersweet healing - When you go through something like this, you are classified as a Code C, which means you can't go overseas. I wanted to go to Aviano my whole career because my grandfather was born in San Quirino. Luckily, after my three year cancer-free mark, that code was lifted and I ended up getting assigned to Aviano. I survived cancer and got the assignment of my dreams, but shortly after I got here in 2003 my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a mastectomy and had to go through chemotherapy because her cancer had spread. 

We thought everything was great - she weathered through the rounds of chemo and her spirits were high. Then, in 2006 they found her cancer had spread to her ribs and spine. She went through chemo again and I went home in the summer to see her. After she came out of that, her tumor count had come down below normal. We thought we had weathered through this again. 

Then her tumor markers shot up to 80 which is really high. She had gone down to 26 after her last round of chemo. We found out her cancer spread all through her chest, her collar bone and her liver. With it being in the liver, it doesn't really ever go away. She's terminal and there's nothing we can do now. It's very hard for me to talk about it. 

Teaching others - There's one thing I learned from this: People need to take charge of their own health care. If you have a gut feeling or a concern, bring it up. I feel I should have pushed, because at every breast exam I was saying, 'Shouldn't I get a mammogram?' and they'd kind of alleviate my fears. I was easily relieved because my mother hadn't had it. 

If anything, this disease has brought awareness to us. I would tell anyone, this is not just genetic - anybody can get it, so it's imperative women do breast self-exams. You know more than anyone about your body. 

I was asked to speak at the Women's History Month Fair, and I had been interested for a long time in talking about my experience. I love talking to people and giving them hope. 

The take-home message is to go with your gut feeling; don't put things off. If you notice something wrong, get in quick. Sometimes I feel like I didn't even have cancer. I was afforded the best medical care and I feel so blessed. All my medical care was covered and the military paid for my emergency leave, too. It's just amazing to me. I feel very fortunate to have been taken care of so well.