ALI AL SALEM AIR BASE, Kuwait --
A social media notification lit up her phone with a four-year-old memory from when she was in the middle of her first deployment. These are the memories she typically pushes to the back of her mind, but this blatant reminder of the diagnosis that cut her deployment short and got her medically evacuated home, confronted her head-on.
Today, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Cinnamon Kava, 5th Expeditionary Air Mobility Squadron combat oriented support operations supply specialist, is in the middle of her second deployment at Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, and is applying the resiliency skills she learned from her battle with Hodgkin lymphoma, which began here in November 2016.
Kava, a Senior Airman in 2016, said she was excited to be on her first deployment as she focused on work, physical fitness and her passion: basketball.
“One night I was lying in bed, I adjusted my necklace and felt a lymph node in my neck,” Kava said. “Of course I hopped on Google after a couple days because I kept touching it. Everything I read said lymph nodes are supposed to swell up, but if they’re the ones above your collarbone, then you need to seek immediate medical attention.”
The lymph nodes she felt were, in fact, above her collarbone. After a consultation at the 386th Medical Group clinic, doctors recommended more detailed exams, which led to transfers to Camp Arifjan’s U.S. Military Hospital, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and, ultimately, back to her home station at Travis Air Force Base, California.
Within a few days, Kava went from relaxing on her twin bed in Kuwait to awaiting biopsy results in northern California.
The biopsy confirmed that 28-year-old Kava had Hodgkin lymphoma.
“Before the doctor gave me the results, she asked if I wanted to call my dad to have him come down and that’s when I knew it wasn’t going to be good,” Kava explained. “The doctor gave me a packet of information and it just sat in my car for months. I didn’t even look at it. I felt like I didn’t need to know anything about it because I have it, I’m going to deal with it, I’m going to do chemotherapy and go from there.”
According to mayoclinic.org, Hodgkin lymphoma is a cancer in the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system, and is most common in people ages 20-40 years old and those over the age of 50. Medical researchers confirm that it begins when a lymphocyte cell develops a mutation, but have yet to determine a cause.
Kava would spend the following months receiving 5-hour long, bi-weekly chemotherapy treatments.
She said her treatment expectations were based on what she saw in movies where patients were too sick to function, but despite those expectations, she wanted to maintain as much normalcy as possible.
“I would go play basketball right after chemotherapy,” she continued. “As long as I felt like myself and I had energy to burn, then I was out there playing. That’s just how I am, if I can’t control something then I’m not going to stress myself out about it.”
Basketball has played an integral role in Kava’s life since she started playing at age five. Her hard work and commitment to the sport earned her a college scholarship and a spot on the U.S. Armed Forces Women’s Basketball team, which took home the 2019 International Sports for the Military World Games bronze medal in Wuhan, China.
“Basketball was my outlet and it kept me sane,” Kava explained. “I focused on my goal of making the Air Force team later that year and told myself I was going to make the team once I was done with chemotherapy. I knew I could do it.”
Kava said she credits her determination to her faith and honing her focus on aspects in her life that she could control. She decided she was not going to let her diagnosis define her or dictate her life.
“I’m thankful that I was able to have that attitude and just roll with the punches,” Kava said. “I wasn’t going to let the possibilities stress me out. I figured, clearly I’m supposed to be going through this, so I focused on what I could take away from the experience.”
Nearly a year after abruptly leaving ASAB, Kava was medically cleared to return to work. Four months of chemotherapy treatments eradicated the cancerous cells, allowing her to recite the Oath of Enlistment and commit to five more years in the Air Force, securing the point guard position on the all-Air Force Women’s Basketball team and was officially named Staff Sgt. Kava.
Kava is now approaching the end of her second deployment here and using her experience to help her 5th EAMS troops develop their own adaptable skills to handle daily stressors and endure hardships. She chooses to share her story in the hopes of inspiring Airmen to shift their outlook.
“Going through this definitely made me a more understanding supervisor,” Kava said. “Everyone has a story and everyone faces challenges, especially in the military. Hopefully by sharing my story, Airmen can have a warrior mindset too, because it really does make a difference.”
The self-proclaimed military brat said she is going to continue to set goals while appreciating life’s battles and enjoying her triumphs. She plans to follow in her father’s footsteps of retiring from the Air Force after 20 years of service and will continue to be the example for her troops by taking classes toward a Master’s degree in administration with a concentration in industrial and organizational psychology.
By January 2021, Kava will close the chapter on the deployment she started in 2016 and celebrate four years of being cancer-free.