By Senior Airman Jaeda Tookes, 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
/ Published October 07, 2016
MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. --
Capt. Brittany Rhanes, 341st Operations Support Squadron intercontinental ballistic missile emergency war order planner, was diagnosed with vulvar cancer Feb. 17, 2016.
According to cancer.org, vulvar cancer is a form of gynecologic cancer affecting 0.6 percent of all cancers in women, and less than 20 percent of the cases are women younger than age 50 and more than half over the age of 70.
“September 2015, I was graduating from Squadron Officer School at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama,” said Brittany. “I noticed a bump and thought it was strange, but I chalked it up to all the running, jumping and obstacle courses we were doing.”
Three months later she noticed the bump was still there, but had grown in size to the point of discomfort.
“I was seen by a doctor here at the clinic on base, and was told it was a type of cyst,” said Brittany. “The doctor told me it was very common for women in child-bearing ages to get them. My procedure to have my cyst removed could not be done on-base, so I was referred to an off-base facility.”
The off-base facility she was referred to could not do the procedure either, so she was referred to another doctor.
“I went to the second facility during lunch one day,” said Brittany. “The doctor told me they agreed with the doctor on-base about the type of cyst it was, and all they had to do was drain it.
They attempted to drain the cyst, but instead of liquid it was a solid mass.
“By the end of my appointment, there were three doctors trying to figure out what the solid mass was,” said Brittany.
They did a biopsy, stitched her back up and sent her on her way.
“By the time I received my results, my cyst was between 6 to 8 centimeters,” she continued. “The doctors told me I had a ruptured polyp, and performed surgery to remove it. The surgery was more of a comfort to me, so I would not have to be in any pain.”
She had her surgery Feb. 2, 2016 with a same-day discharge.
“At my two-week check-up, the doctors told me my margins tested positive for sarcoma and that I needed to see a specialist,” said Brittany. “I want to say I remember everything the doctor said after that, but I honestly just zoned out.”
She said, her first thought was her husband. They were approaching the two-year mark of his mother’s passing from a 20-year breast cancer battle.
“I was scared, but I couldn’t be,” said Anthony Rhanes, Brittany’s husband. “I wanted to be her rock, so that she could lean on me.”
Had Brittany not had the original surgery, the doctors would have never known she had cancer.
“Two days later we were going on vacation,” said Brittany. “While at the airport I got a call from my doctor telling me they had never seen a case like mine before, and had to refer me to Salt Lake City, Utah.”
There a Sarcoma Board would decide the best option, whether it was chemo, radiation or surgery.
“Surgery was the best option to protect me during my child-bearing ages,” said Brittany.
They were only gone for a week, but as soon as they returned everything happened quickly.
“The medical group on base was really amazing with helping me get through this process,” said Brittany. “It was a very small window to get me seen at the facility in Utah, due to the new patient information, getting a computerized tomography scan and prepping for surgery.”
At the beginning of March, Brittany ran into her first hurdle with cancer.
“Cancer can strike at any time, and it is never a convenient time in your life,” said Brittany. “I had my job, my career and transferring from one squadron to another. My husband had a job, and due to his position there was no one in the region who could cover his shift while I was away for treatment. ”
All of these thoughts went through their heads, to the point where Anthony was considering quitting his job.
“We can’t let cancer dictate our lives,” said Brittany. “At that point the severity of me having cancer had not hit me, so I was willing to just go by myself.”
The closer it got to the departure day, Brittany said, she started freaking out.
“The doctors told me I would be wheelchair bound for a little bit after the surgery,” said Brittany. “All of these thoughts of how I was going to get around, and what I was going to do ran through my head. My mom and siblings work, and all of my friends are operators.”
A friend offered help she had known since joining the Air Force.
“I flew out to Salt Lake City on a Wednesday, and I had my surgery Friday,” said Brittany. “I was released Saturday and flew back to Great Falls on Monday.”
Her results from the surgery came a couple of days later.
“All of the cancer was removed, along with part of my skin,” said Brittany. “The doctors don’t know what caused me to get that particular type of cancer.”
Brittany was on convalescent leave for a month recovering, before returning back to work.
“I experience moments when I will go and do something and think, ‘this happened to you,”’ said Brittany. “Looking back on this journey and what I went through, I never would have thought in a thousand years I would be a cancer survivor.”
Every time she goes to the doctor or dentist and fills out the questionnaire, she gets reminded of that fact.
“Now I check the box that I have had (cancer) before,” said Brittany. “It’s hard not to feel like you are alone when things like this happen.”
According to Brittany, she started looking to get involved with other young adults going through what she went through.
“(Life) happens,” said Brittany. “You can decide to dwell on it or get involved. Life doesn’t have to stop, just because I had cancer.
I loved to run before I had cancer,” she continued. “I was afraid to get back out there and start again. I am not going to be what I was last year, but in a way I am better.”
Brittany now runs to help raise money for young adults and children with cancer, and her physical training test run time has gotten better.
“I am able to start over,” said Brittany. “I went through one hard thing last year, and that is not going to stop me.”