TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – When service members transition from active-duty service to retirement; most see it as a new chapter in one’s life. For most, that transition is seamless and the soon-to-be retiree has embraced the challenges to come.
U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Tracey Drake, 60th Medical Operations Squadron Family Advocacy NCOIC, had a plan in place, and was looking forward to beginning this new phase; unfortunately, that so-called seamless process came to a screeching halt.
During a mammogram for her Department of Veterans Affairs disability claim, just three weeks before her retirement ceremony, it was discovered that Drake had metastatic breast cancer. Metastatic means the cancer had spread beyond her breasts into other parts of her body. A magnetic resonance imaging test was ordered to help determine the severity and location of the cancer.
“After the MRI showed the high-grade malignancy, we needed to get the ball rolling immediately because it was spreading that fast,” said Drake. “We couldn’t afford to wait and see if the cancer would spread to my lungs and brain.”
The cancer had already spread up her neck and to her lymph nodes so an aggressive treatment plan was implemented to prevent the cancer from spreading further.
“When young women, typically 40 and younger get breast cancer, it’s more likely to be an aggressive cancer,” said Lt. Col. (Dr.) Stephen Bepko, 60th Diagnostics and Therapeutics Squadron chief of breast imaging, “Because of Drake’s aggressive sub-type cancer she was referred directly to oncology.,” “This was to reduce the amount of the tumor burden and to stop the spread and growth of her cancer.”
In most breast cancer treatment plans, surgery is the first step followed by chemotherapy; in Drake’s case chemotherapy came first.
The fact that Drake was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer is not rare. According to the American Cancer Society, there are almost 250,000 new cases of some type of breast cancer diagnosed every year in the United States. One out of every nine women will be diagnosed with breast cancer every year, and 20 out of every 100,000 women will die from it. At Travis Air Force Base, California the 60th Medical Group averages five-to-six breast cancer diagnoses a month out of the 300-400 mammograms performed at DGMC, said Bepko.
What makes Drake’s story so compelling is the overwhelming positivity, inspiration, and determination she demonstrates.
“She has a wonderful outlook, she’s very positive, upbeat, and her presence is very strong,” said 1st. Lt. Kendra Alanis, 60th Medical Operations Squadron registered nurse. “As soon as you meet Tracey, it becomes abundantly clear that her battle with cancer is one she plans on winning.”
Learning you have advanced stage three cancer is a life-changing event and there are going to be challenges along the way. Drake said the hardest part was telling her kids. She told her son Grey first because she felt he was strong; in contrast the conversation with her 9-year-old daughter, Riley, was the most difficult she ever had.
“Riley began getting fixated on hating nine because nine is the age where my mommy got cancer, and I told her no Riley, nine is the year that mommy beat cancer,” said Drake. “It’s been really amazing to see them so strong and how we’re getting through this as a family.”
And despite the fact that Drake and her family were four days away from closing on a four-bedroom lakeside property in Texas, three weeks away from starting terminal leave, and beginning a new chapter in their lives, Drake remains grateful for the way her family has come together during this fight.
“It’s like the “etch a sketch” of my entire life just got shook and it’s completely blank now and I’m having to rebuild and redraw my life again which is totally different than I imagined,” said Drake. “I tell them let’s focus on right now, the memories and the life that we have right now, that’s the reality I want them to have at this time.”
As with most chemotherapy patients, one of the side effects is hair loss. Drake knew this might be dramatic for her kids so to ease the shock; she hosted a shaving party and let her daughter shave most of it. This was a big step for them all because it gave them a sense that everything was going to be alright, she said.
“The hair falling out was really anxiety provoking because I had really long hair and it was just coming out in huge clumps,” said Drake. Drake had already been processing the reality that she had cancer but when she lost her hair she said “It became real for everyone else.”
During the first few weeks after losing her hair; total strangers approached her at the gym or other places and asked about her shaved head. “They would ask what this is about, why’d you shave your head?” Drake said.
In the beginning Drake was still processing her ordeal so she needed to talk about it a lot.
“At first I was probably over sharing my medical information…this is what’s going on, this is what they’re going to do, so people would ask me more and more questions because I clearly seemed open to it,” said Drake.
She was surprised that people outside her circle didn’t correlate her appearance with her condition.
“I got a lot of people asking me in the month of October, breast cancer awareness month, if I had shaved my head to support someone else, and I had to tell them no, I’m supporting myself,” she said.
Eventually, Drake got sick of the questions and just shut down because she had been so open at first that it drained her emotionally. She said she had to step back and disconnect for a while. She took a few days to refresh and come back with a renewed sense of boundaries while learning to tailor her story in a more appropriate way for her.
“I’m not only navigating myself through this but also my children so I have to find that right balance of how I want my story to be told,” said Drake.
Drake will tell you that she doesn’t want sympathy or anyone to feel bad about what she’s going through; in fact you get the opposite from her. She wants to use this journey as an example to her kids to show them this is how you get through problems and situations in life.
“Everything worked out perfectly for such a horrible situation; it’s like the best case scenario for the worst case scenario.” said Drake. “People say “oh that sucks you were just about to retire or that sucks about the house.” I tell them, I don’t even care, I’m not even mad because my path of life changed, I have a path of life still.”
Drake faces a lifetime of treatment and an uphill battle to recovery. She still has to endure surgery, radiation, targeted infusion, and reconstruction surgery; at least an 18-month journey just to complete those treatments alone. Despite this reality she remains positive about her prognoses and sees each phase of her treatment as a battle and she plans on conquering every one.
“It’s much easier for me to view each phase of treatment separately instead of collectively,” she said. “If I thought about it all at once I’d probably be in the fetal position in a corner somewhere.”
Drake has been overwhelmed by the effort her medical team at DGMC has exhibited during her treatment. She knows their job is difficult and the compassion and determination they put forth to save lives is amazing.
“It’s incredible to sit there not only as a participant but as an observer and witness so much humanity and mortality,” said Drake. “They make people’s lives better and they make peoples death better.”
Drake has no misconceptions about her prognoses and the battle she faces; realistically and statistically she feels there’s a few good years left. The way she’s responded to treatment, the healthy lifestyle prior, and her age all play to her advantage in recovery.
“A few good years left means I’m keeping it open, it isn’t three to five,” said Drake. “I don’t think I have a short-term end game; I’m hoping for 10, would love 20, not banking on 30.”
Drake has received an outpouring of support to help her through this. Fellow airmen, friends, family, and even her children’s teachers have all chipped in to try and make things a little easier for her and her kids. Airman 1st Class Christopher Earling, 60th Medical Operations Squadron mental health technician started a Thursday night meal train where participants rotate preparing hot meals for Drake and her children.
“When I first heard the news I just broke down and cried,” said Earling. “I collected myself together and came up with an idea for our unit to help MSgt Drake and the kids.”
Earling created a website where members from Drake’s unit signup to bring her meals. The meals they prepare are based on Drake’s diet limitations and foods her children enjoy.
“So far it’s worked out great, we haven’t missed a meal since her diagnoses,” said Earling.
“Because I’ve always been so independent it was hard for me to accept help and in the beginning I still felt fine,” said Drake. “I told them that I don’t know what I’ll need but when I need it, it’ll be right then because it’s just going to be all of a sudden and then I will need.”
Since Drake was close to beginning terminal leave and arranging to move out of state, an administrative component had to be addressed as well.
“It was amazing to witness how fast the medical and administrative pieces synced together for Tracey,” said Bepko. “Arrangements had to be made to ensure we could keep her in the Air Force and in base housing so we could provide her with the best possible treatment.”
What Drake wants most is for her story to benefit others.
“I’m already aware of two people who have gotten mammograms,” said Drake. I’m so grateful for that; no matter how my story ends, the beginning of it was helpful to others.
Drake knows there’s a possibility she’ll miss out on things in her kids lives which is the worst part about all of this for her.
“I’m extremely connected with my kids, I’ve been a single mom with them the majority of their lives, we’re absolutely a party of three and if I die they wouldn’t just lose me, they’d lose each other,” said Drake.
The thought of that is one of the reasons that will keep Drake battling with courage and perseverance until the end.