“I remember this day like it was yesterday. It was Oct. 5, 2011 about 2:30 p.m. I was in a meeting with my lieutenant and unit supervisor. I had given the Breast Care Center the OK to call me with the results.”
That was how Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Heather J. Hosaflook found out she had breast cancer at the age of 37. Ironically, it was during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, observed annually throughout October.
A hemodialysis technician who works in transfusion services at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC), Hosaflook said it was Dr. Claudia Galbo who told her she had invasive ductal cancer.
“I lost it, started crying, and kept saying, ‘This can’t be true,’” said the native of Bridgeport, W. Va.
Diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer, Hosaflook said Galbo explained to her what would happen during the next few days.
“My supervisors were great with the support I needed at that moment,” Hosaflook recalled. “We came out of the office and explained to the other staff members what had just happened. I left work and called my friend, Amy. She was speechless, other than saying, ‘No, this can’t be true,’ and, ‘You had a bad feeling from the start.’”
Hosaflook met Amy O’Connor nearly seven years ago after reporting to the former National Naval Medical Center (now WRNMMC) where O’Connor is currently assistant department chief of Healthcare Resolutions. When they met, both worked in Social Work. “We became really good friends after I bought my dog, Brooklyn, in 2009,” Hosaflook explained. “We are both dog lovers and we say, ‘the dogs made us closer.’”
O’Connor said after Hosaflook called her and told her she found a lump in her breast while in the shower, “We assured each other that it was probably nothing but would need to be checked out.” That was on a Friday. The following Monday, they were at the Breast Care Center.
“Heather was strong, [but] worried,” O’Connor said. “Somehow she knew in her heart that this was breast cancer.”
After receiving the news she had breast cancer, sharing it with O’Connor and arriving home, Hosaflook said she took a long walk and cried. She said she was scared, afraid of the treatment and worried about how she would tell her family and boyfriend.
“The next morning when I arrived to work, I had my game face on and [was] ready to tackle this awful disease,” said the Sailor. “Yes, throughout the process I had my moments that I broke down and cried, but for the most part, I tried to stay positive [and] strong,” Hosaflook added.
She also called on her parents and her brother for support. “We’re a very close family and the last thing I had ever wanted to do [was] to tell my family that I had a serious illness.
“I wanted to tell my parents in person,” Hosaflook said. “I traveled home the Friday after I was diagnosed. At first, my parents thought the news I had to tell them was that I was being deployed.”
After telling them she had cancer, Hosaflook said her parent were initially, “shocked, [in] denial and an emotional mess. After the shock calmed down, they wanted to know my treatment plan and how to fight this,” she added.
A Life-Changing Discovery
Hosaflook said when she initially felt a lump in her breast she reported to sick call and was referred to the Breast Care Center at Walter Reed Bethesda.
“The day after I was at sick call, I was seen by Army Maj. (Dr.) Amy Vertrees in the Breast Care Center, and she ordered a mammogram and an ultrasound,” Hosaflook explained. “Those two procedures were on Thursday of that week, and after the procedures, the doctors agreed the lump needed to be biopsied,” she said.
The biopsy took place the following Wednesday, and two weeks later, she received her diagnosis.
Maj. Vertrees then ordered a biopsy of her lymph nodes, and confirmed the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, requiring surgery to remove.
“One and a half months after the original diagnosis, I had a left radical mastectomy,” Hosaflook said. “They removed 16 lymph nodes in which only one came back with a positive result. I was given a temporary expander to hold the breast cavity open until I am able to have my reconstruction.”
On Dec. 15, 2011, Hosaflook began chemo. She finished April 2. She then started radiation on May 8 and finished June 15. She said she is currently awaiting reconstruction, which will take approximately two surgeries.
Now cancer-free, Hosaflook said she will follow up with her oncologist every three months for the next two years.
“After being diagnosed, my outlook has changed tremendously,” Hosaflook said. “I am more relaxed and enjoy life. I have become more spiritual and I cherish my time with my family [and] friends more, and don’t take things for granted. I have become very involved with a breast cancer awareness foundation. I do not want any woman to have to walk in the steps that I have. I have been blessed to have access to the health care and the wonderful doctors that I do,” she continued.
Lt. Col. (Dr.) David C. Van Echo, Hosaflook’s oncologist in the hematology/oncology service at WRNMMC, said, “I treated her through the chemotherapy regimen and continue to care for her now. She has never wavered from her goal of finishing treatment to cure this disease and get on with her life. She always had a positive attitude through every side effect or setback. She is one of those patients who inspire me to keep coming to work every day.”
Vertrees, Hosaflook’s surgeon, agreed. “She was diagnosed with breast cancer at a very young age, before the age of our routine screening guidelines,” Vertrees explained. “[Hosaflook’s] vigilance led to her seeking care early. She maintained a positive attitude throughout the process, and has always been a joy to take care of.”
The surgeon said Hosaflook shared “her journey and her personal thoughts on Facebook, both good times and bad. I know other patients who have drawn strength from her strength directly, and she has been a constant inspiration to me,” Vertrees added.
“Cancer is a challenging diagnosis, but for a patient like Heather, she will fight back not only for herself, but for others as well,” Vertrees continued. “She is a very special patient.”
“There is no discrimination when it comes to breast cancer,” Hosaflook added. “Women are diagnosed younger and younger all the time. It is so important to perform your monthly breast exams, and see your doctor for anything that you notice no matter if you think that it is nothing to be concerned about.”
Hosaflook participated in a walk for breast cancer Oct. 12-14 in Washington, D.C., and walked approximately 20 miles each day to bring about awareness. “The weekend was filled with laughter, tears and a mix of emotions. I reflected on my journey and it was truly amazing,” she said.