by Staff Sgt. Cia Newman
Air Warfare Center Public Affairs

11/19/2004 – NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (AFPN) — “I never thought it could happen to me,” she said. Her morning routine April 4, 2001, changed her outlook on life and gave her a new respect for it. Her day-to-day routine of waking up and jumping in and out of the shower now involves taking steps to save her life.

After discovering a lump in her upper left breast during a regular morning shower, Staff Sgt. Ebbie Cabrera had an incisional biopsy performed and was in disbelief with the news she got from her doctor.

“When she called me and said, ‘Your biopsy came back positive, I’m sorry to tell you, you have breast cancer,’ I was in shock, and her words will forever echo in my mind,” said Sergeant Cabrera, a dorm manager here.

Before the biopsy, an ultrasound and a mammogram were performed. Neither one showed any abnormalities.

“Because the lump was located in my upper chest and not directly inside my breast, the mammogram did not pick it up; so if I hadn’t performed a self-examination, the cancer could have spread a lot further before it was detected,” she said.

Sergeant Cabrera was diagnosed with having an estrogen- and progesterone-positive invasive type of cancer that spreads into nearby tissue. Her Stage II cancer had broken off and spread into her lymph nodes.

An estrogen- and progesterone-positive type of cancer means the tumor is stimulated by estrogen and progesterone, said Susan Garlow, a registered nurse educator at the 99th Medical Group women’s health clinic.

“It had already spread into nearby tissue,” she said.

At that time, Sergeant Cabrera and her husband were trying to conceive a child, and she was placed on medication to increase her estrogen levels, she said.

“Neither the doctors nor I know what caused me to get cancer, but regardless of the reason, the fact remained I had gotten cancer,” she said.

The odds were unfavorable for someone like her to get this deadly disease. In her late 30s, she worked out five to six days a week, monitored her diet very closely and had no family history of breast cancer.

“So how could this happen to someone like me?” she said she asked herself many times.

“Many women don’t feel they have to worry about breast cancer if they don’t fall into the high-risk factors,” she said, “but the fact is that simply being a woman and getting older puts you at risk. Having several risk factors doesn’t mean that you will get breast cancer; it simply means that your chances of getting the disease are higher than women who have fewer risks.

“Very often, the only examinations performed are during a woman’s visit to her health-care provider,” Sergeant Cabrera said. “This is a dangerous habit, and one that can lead to many women losing the fight.

“As horrifying as the news was, I learned later how lucky I was to have found the tumor in its early stages,” she said. “Ultrasounds and mammograms are excellent screening tools, but they are not always 100 percent accurate; that’s why it is important to do monthly breast self-exams and have a yearly physical exam.”

After Sergeant Cabrera underwent a lumpectomy, she was placed on chemotherapy to kill any cancer that might remain in the body.

“At first I had many feelings of humiliation,” she said. “It took me a very long time to let anyone know what was going on with me. I felt ashamed as if I had caused myself to get some type of transferable disease.”

Although the chemotherapy caused her to lose her hair and cut back on many of the activities she was involved in, it never took away her perseverance to stop fighting.

“I would wake up and find handfuls of hair falling out, so I told my husband, ‘let’s just shave it off,’” she said. “And as weak as I was getting, I never stopped going to the gym. I wasn’t going to allow the cancer to take anything else from me.”

Sergeant Cabrera has been cancer free for two and a half years. Because of the stage of the cancer, Sergeant Cabrera has a 70 percent chance of the cancer returning, but she said that reconfirms the importance of respecting each day and living it to the fullest.

“The little things don’t bother me anymore,” she said. “I used to feel that everybody was living, and I only existed. But now, anything I was scared of doing before, I jump right into. I am certain if I hadn’t detected my cancer as early as I did, I wouldn’t be here today.”

The slogan of “early detection is the key to prevention,” can become monotonous, and routine can also be the cause of oversight, but she said there is no better reason to develop reminder habits.

“I plead for all women to perform breast self-exams, have clinical breast exams and yearly mammograms after age 40,” she said. “ If you have a hard time remembering to do your breast self-examinations, get a shower card from the women’s health clinic that not only tells you how to perform a self-exam, but it has a place where you can punch out each month so you will remember to do it. But most important of all … as mundane as it might be, early detection is your best protection.”