By Senior Airman Erica Rodriguez, 113th Wing Public Affairs
/ Published October 24, 2016
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. -- Meeting Tech. Sgt. Moira Howerton has forever changed my outlook on life.
I first met Moira, better known as "Mo," during a group lunch, though I had seen her often working around the 113th Communications Squadron, always happy and energetic.
During our lunch, she told me about her career going on 14 years in the Air National Guard starting in her hometown in Ohio, ending up here in the 113th Wing after a tour at the National Guard Bureau. But as she recounted her previous year to me, it seemed like something straight out of a movie, because little did I know, Moira was battling breast-cancer.
After finishing the active duty tour with the NGB, she decided to focus on going to school full time, getting back into her personal training and spending more time with her two children. She had noticed she was more tired than usual, but thought it due to coming off shift work and needing to get back into a schedule. She was also was going to the gym very often
One particular day at the gym she wore a simple black, Under Armor breast cancer awareness shirt, that she bought because, as she put it, "It wouldn't show sweat stains!" she laughs.
Following a session of working out, she is approached by a stranger who is touched by the fact that Moira is wearing the shirt. The stranger explains that she is a survivor and she loved the fact the Mo was proudly showing her support.
"The woman said to me 'I love young women advocating for it, you're never too young to get checked,'" Howerton recalls. "For some reason that kind of made me start thinking, and I know it sounds so crazy at 31 to think about breast cancer being a possibility, but I was slowing down and was also so tired, it's like something was going on with my body. I was always one to often do self-exams and I went home that night and found my lump, which at first I thought it was just all in my head and I was being paranoid, especially with this woman who just came up to me."
She described the lump to be very small but hard, she had also noticed pain in the same area, but thought it was due to working out.
Moira made her appointment where they initially thought the lump was just a cyst due to her young age and the lumps location on her bra line, and made another appointment for six weeks out. The next day the called asking her if she wanted to come in as someone had canceled their appointment. The doctor tried reassuring her that it didn't seem like cancer since Moira was so young, with no family history of breast cancer and no issues breast feeding. Yet Moira just wanted some piece of mind to make for certain it wasn't anything wrong, so the doctor suggested she go to the ultrasound clinic next door to her appointment.
"I had this inner feeling and as soon as they did the ultrasound, I just knew it was cancer," she said. "Instead of one lump they found two and just the way they looked, both were really small but they looked like roots of a tree."
They took a biopsy two days later to be followed with the news that Moira did indeed have cancer. She was diagnosed with stage 2, triple negative breast cancer.
According to breastcancer.org, the negative results mean that the growth of the cancer is not supported by the hormones estrogen and progesterone, nor by the presence of too many HER2 receptors. Therefore, triple-negative breast cancer does not respond to hormonal therapy or therapies that target HER2 receptors, such as Herceptin. However, other medicines can be used to treat triple-negative breast cancer.
The hardest part for Moira was having to explain the cancer to her children.
"I knew I just had to be honest with them," she said." The world isn't going to shelter them. But I bought books for children that explained it for them and there are a lot of resources out there that help explain it. I even brought them to one of my treatments.
Just being really open and explaining things to them I feel really helped them with their fears."
As an Airman she had to break the news to her leadership and unit, who reassured her that they had her back and would support her through everything.
"Maj. [Nathaniel] Church was amazing," said Howerton about her unit commander. "I called him and right away he was like 'I'm going to help you, let me find resources for you.' He just went into awesome mode and everyone was very understanding of any drills I had to miss."
They assigned Master Sgt. J.P. McGinley as her point-of-contact for anything streamline she needed with help in the unit.
"He did such a great job," she said. "They [members from her unit] came to a few treatment, they brought me food, sent me flowers and more. They were amazing especially with me being new and them not really knowing me, I really felt supported through it all. For them to step up in that way is just incredible."
"I feel like the biggest change for me is internal," she said. "The way I handle stress has changed. I've become self-aware of my own time. I'm still growing and processing everything. I was a giver, which I still am, but I've learned how to prioritize and be able to graciously tell people no. I've become a lot kinder, slower and empathetic."
Beyond her internal changes, her external changes also heavily impacted her.
"Being a bald woman gives you a new perspective," she laughs. "Being stripped of any vanity, you really learn what makes you really who you are. You really learn to distinguish who is genuine and who's not."
On Oct. 7, 2015, after going through 16 rounds of intensive chemotherapy over five months, her chemotherapy ended.
Once a person is determined to have a malignant tumor or the diagnosis of breast cancer, the healthcare team will determine staging to communicate how far the disease has progressed.
· The size of the tumor within the breast
· The number of lymph nodes affected
· The nearest lymph nodes are found under the arm, known as the axillary area
· Signs indicating whether or not the breast cancer has invaded other organs within the body
Only a small percentage of breast lumps turn out to be cancer. But if you discover a persistent lump in your breast or notice any changes in breast tissue, it should never be ignored. It is very important that you see a physician for a clinical breast exam. He or she may possibly order breast imaging studies to determine if this lump is of concern or not.
It is common myth that only women can get breast cancer. Each year it is estimated that approximately 2,190 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer and 410 will die. W
While this percentage is still small, men should also check themselves periodically by doing a breast self-exam while in the shower and reporting any changes to their physicians. Breast cancer in men is usually detected as a hard lump underneath the nipple and areola. Men carry a higher mortality than women do, primarily because awareness among men is less and they are less likely to assume a lump is breast cancer, which can cause a delay in seeking treatment.
Women and men should perform a self-breast-exam each month and any changes or abnormalities should be discussed with a doctor or physician.
Mo has taught me a lot about how to appreciate every day; to never make excuses or let life beat you down. Through it all, she was determined and made a point to inspire those around her every day.
Close friends of hers created the campaign GOFOMO that aimed at raising breast cancer awareness and supporting Moira throughout her chemotherapy. As Moira loves fitness, members of the campaign were encouraged to post daily miles ran, walked, hiked, etc. or any other fun workouts they did.
"I really try to advocate knowing your own body and being resilient," she said. "I really pushed to get myself checked, even though I was being dismissed by the doctors, because I knew something was wrong with my body. It isn't just breast cancer, it can be with anything. I don't want to scare anyone, the numbers are low, but if it could help just that 1 percent, then that means something."
She taught me to listen to my body. Had Moira not been persistent with the doctors about checking her lump, she may not be here. Know yourself, take charge of your health, make that time to check yourself, and makes those doctor appointments. C
Cancer is something that can truly happen to anyone to which we should all be aware.
I want to thank Moira for being such a kind, special person, who as an Airman and a mother, is one of my greatest inspirations to get up and seize the day. I am proud to call her a Wingman.