I am part of this amazing group of women known collectively as The Pink Moon Lovelies. I am also a chapter in the book The Pink Moon Lovelies: Empowering Stories of Survival.
One of our members, our warrior queen Barbie Ritzco is fighting for her life right now. So I am taking a moment to give her a shout out! She is chapter 1 in the book if you own it.
As my friend Nicki Boscia Durlester said today:
For those if you who haven’t had the opportunity to read Barbie Ritzco’s story first up in our book, The Pink Moon Lovelies: Empowering Stories of Survival, please take a moment to read it now. Barbie is a career United States Marine who put her life on the line for ours when she deployed to Afghanistan knowing she had a lump in her breast. I have never known any like her. She is in a class by herself. I ask you all to keep her in your loving thoughts and prayers.
Sending love to her, Barbie Ritzco, this post is for you!
Reprinted with love and prayers, here is Barbie’s story:
BRCA2 Breast Cancer Survivor, 39
Now this is a story all about how my life got twist-turned inside out,
I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there,
I’ll tell you how I become the prince of a town called Bel Air…
OOPS!!! Wrong Story!!!
I always knew I would be the one to get breast cancer in my family. I have always been the lucky one. Winning bullshit here and there. Nothing significant but considered lucky nonetheless. I never even had boobs until I was in my late 20s, after I gave birth to my son. They were a size D. They never got any smaller; they just kind of deflated like old helium balloons. I had stretch marks all over them. I had my nipple pierced too. I have no idea why. I was in Ontario, Canada assisting with an air show and it seemed like a good idea at the time. I do spontaneous stupid things. I think I have a T-shirt or bumper sticker that says that…anyway, now all that is left of my boobs are the stretch marks. My surgeon did a skin sparing procedure. What a nice guy. Thanks doc for saving my stretch marks! He wanted to leave as much skin as he could for reconstruction since I was so skinny.
Flashback! Sorry for the flash-forward. For all that don’t know my background I will just drop a few small details so this story has a chance of making sense. I am 37 years old (Italian, Polish, Russian). I am a GySgt in the US Marines. I have been serving for over 17 years. Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany, Spain, Italy, Ireland, Hawaii, Japan, Romania, etc, been there, got the shot glass. So there I was in a community shower with eight other women in the field while participating in desert operations preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. I noticed a small lump while I was washing. It was about the size of a gumball. Small in the real world. Big in the cancer world. Too busy to put any real thought into it, I just continued on with my regular day-to-day work schedule. 12 hours on and 12 hours off. One hot meal a day. Sleeping on a cot in a hut in the desert at triple digits. Eventually in a few months when things calmed down, I told my Flight Surgeon that I had a lump. He did what all good Docs do and referred me to someone else to
have it checked out. I cancelled the appointment several times due to hectic work situations and sleep deprivation. We were scheduled to deploy in mid November 2010. I once again cancelled the appointment; actually I think I just forgot about it. I told my Doc that the lump wasn’t going anywhere. It would still be there when I got back. I wasn’t going to let a lumpy boob stop me from deploying. Hell no! I went through too much to get to this point to not deploy with my Marines and my Squadron.
I soon deployed to Afghanistan…. me, my M16 service rifle, 50 rounds, a Kevlar, Flak jacket, gas mask, and unbeknownst to anyone else…my lump. I really didn’t think much of it. There is no history of breast cancer in my family, well except for my first cousin Linda who was diagnosed at 30, if you want to call that history. I closely monitored it and when I noticed it became slightly larger after 30 days in country, I had the Doc check it out. He said it felt like a cyst and he would check it again in 30 more days. Sounded good to me. A few weeks passed and it seemed to have grown again. It had taken control of my nipple. Inverted nipple…. not good. I am not going to get into too many details about my deployment. I just want everyone to understand what my situation was at the time. I was in Khandahar, the world’s deadliest place. I was working non-stop to support a flight schedule of FA-18 fighter jets that were constantly dropping bombs on the ground and saving grunt’s lives (3/5 Darkhorse Marines). In less than 45 days, I sent 23 Marines home in boxes. Every night and several times a day, our base was under attack by rockets. We spent hours on end in bunkers waiting for a sign that all was clear. I was responsible for the lives of the ten Marines under me. We hoped all our training would work. The situation was extremely stressful. I think that is why my lump doubled in size in such a short time. Every night taking a shower I would dread washing myself because I knew that lump was there. I would cry in the shower every single time. I knew what it was.
There was no mammogram equipment at the hospital in Khandahar. It is basically a stop the bleeding point for troops before they med-evac them to Landstuhl, Germany. I was told to pack a bag because I would be gone for a few days. I had no idea that I would not be returning at this point. I was briefed that if the worst-case scenario were breast cancer then they would send me home. I piled onto a C-130 medical flight headed to Germany. It took about two days to get there. We had to make several stops along the way to pick up combat wounded troops. I finally arrived in Germany at the hospital and was immediately escorted to see a general surgeon. He examined me and we assumed the worst. It looked horrible. A giant lump, an inverted nipple, and swollen lymph nodes…I was a walking pamphlet for breast cancer. He performed a core needle biopsy. The results wouldn’t be available for a few days. I was lucky enough to have arrived on a holiday weekend. It was February 11th, 2011. Valentine’s Day would be on Monday. Great! I was able to squeeze in the mammogram and an ultrasound before everyone went home for the day. That was good news. I sat in the barracks for a few days with the rest of the Wounded Warriors. Some would not be returning to the combat zone. We all played the waiting game. My results came back on February 23rd, 2011. I already knew what it was. I was just awaiting confirmation. The Chief of Surgery sat down with me and told me that it was pretty much what we thought…breast cancer. I had already prepared myself for this moment while sitting alone in a room for a week. I never told anyone I had left Afghanistan. I didn’t want to worry my family. Now that I knew the results, I had some phone calls to make. I guess that was the hardest part up until then. I called my mom, my husband, my sisters, Brenda and Tammy, and then my dad. I told my mom that I was flying into D.C. and they would start whatever treatment was necessary at Walter Reed in Bethesda MD.
It has been a long year for me. I tried to remember all the details of this journey. One thing I will never forget is the hurt and pain I felt in knowing that I was not going to return to my Marine family. I trained for months with them for this. We had gone through so much. I felt ripped off that I would not be able to complete my deployment with them. I was forced to abandon them. I hoped that they would be strong. This would be the defining moment of my leadership and training. If I had trained them right, they would be successful without my physical presence. I would be useless as a leader and a complete failure if they did not succeed. In the end, they all returned home safely. Mission accomplished!
All alone, I arrived in Bethesda MD. My mom arrived the next day. She drove down from PA. It was a Friday. On Monday, I was scheduled for the million tests and scans that we all know too well. Shuffled for weeks between radiology, cardiology, oncology, surgery, social workers, physical therapists…did I miss any -ologies or -ists? All the while, it seemed as if every person in that hospital had either seen my boobs or palpated them in some way. They just loved poking at my lymph nodes. What was that all about? With all that said, I will make this as short as I can. I was diagnosed at Stage IIIB. They could feel about three swollen lymph nodes. After my surgery, he said 11 out of 11 nodes were cancerous. Only a few of them were affected by chemo. Some hadn’t responded at all. But that was the drill. My lump measured 8 cm by 9 cm when chemotherapy started on March 24th, 2011. Eight cycles of fun. Bilateral mastectomy followed on August 12th, 2011. I removed both not due to the BRCA but because I did not want one real boob and one fake boob. Radiation for six weeks ended on November 22, 2011.
My next step in this was to have my ovaries removed on January 18, 2012. Reconstruction is not anywhere in my future. I have two more years until I can retire from the Marines. Right now, I can’t see myself having another surgery that I consider optional and unnecessary for me. Sure boobs would be great but for whom. I have never seen things more clearly. After being stripped of everything on my body, my life has never made more sense than it does now. I felt more complete being bald and boobless than I ever had before. In my case, it isn’t a matter of you don’t miss it until it’s gone. I do not miss my boobs and I did not miss my hair. It was more like a heavy weight or a burden that was finally removed from my body. I am free! Free of things that most women worry about their whole life! My self-esteem and confidence has only been boosted during all of this. I have never felt so liberated. I will continue to do whatever I want no matter how uncomfortable people around me feel! I will not dress up or cover up or boob up for anyone!
I have to end this now. I rambled enough. I think I have motivated myself into starting a blog or a comic strip or maybe even a short story. I mean, I am no Nicki Boscia Durlester! But maybe one day, if I work hard, I can be!
**In some parts of my story, I added more details than others. I guess that is just the way I see it. Most already know all the horrible things that happen during chemo, surgery and radiation. Not many know what I went through before and during my diagnosis. I just felt like that was a very important part of my life and story. Names have been changed to protect the innocent. This document is unclassified. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. Avoid alcoholic beverages. Apply prior to sun exposure. Wash, rinse and repeat if necessary. I was just seeing if you were still paying attention.
I looked at my kingdom,
I was finally there,
to sit on my throne as the prince of Bel Air.