TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- In order to support a friend who was nervous about her own screening, Tech. Sgt. Melissa Rocha booked her first mammogram nearly two years ago.
But what the 44-year-old flutist for the U.S. Air Force Band of the Golden West at Travis Air Force Base, California, expected to be a routine medical appointment turned into a years-long journey that altered her career, her outlook on life and her body.
In March 2017, the sergeant was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ, a collection of abnormal, pre-cancerous cells affecting the milk ducts of the breast.
“You’re just kind of in shock,” she said of the diagnosis. “You check the boxes off as you get into your different age groups. I just thought, ‘OK, this is another (medical appointment).’ … I was alarmed because I have no history of breast cancer in my family, so I didn’t expect that.”
From her December 2016 mammography screening to the present, Rocha has undergone a symphony of medical treatments: Mammogram, biopsy, lumpectomy, bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction.
In short, the sergeant’s initial screening led to the removal of the precancerous tissue and then, as an aggressive, preventive measure to minimize future risks, she had both of her breasts removed before having them rebuilt via plastic surgery.
It was a path Rocha chose for herself. Because the disease was caught early in the process, the sergeant had treatment options that were unavailable to some who catch the disease in a more advanced stage. Among the options she discarded was undergoing radiation therapy and taking a prescription for as long as a decade, a choice she found unappealing. She wanted to get back to work and get back to the life she knew as quickly and painlessly as possible while diminishing the likelihood of future complications.
After the initial mammography showed evidence of calcium deposits that could lead to breast cancer, Rocha was urged to do further testing, including the biopsy. Approximately 10 percent of mammography patients return for further examination, according to Col. (Dr.) Robert Jesinger, 60th Medical Diagnostics and Therapeutics Squadron medical director and radiologist.
“The earliest types of cancer have these specks of calcium,” said Jesinger. “Treatments vary depending upon what we find.”
Jesinger said recent advancements in radiology, such as 3-D mammograms, have progressed the field and improved early detection of the kinds of danger Rocha faced. He said the sensitivity of a breast magnetic resonance imaging helps medical professionals be thorough with biopsies.
“It identifies calcium particles that other imaging can’t identify,” he said. “If you find something when it’s small, below 15 millimeters or about half an inch, people usually do quite well in terms of treatment.”
Next came the lumpectomy and, in May 2017, the double mastectomy. Lt. Col. (Dr.) Daniel Choi, 60th Surgical Operations Squadron surgeon, is a David Grant USAF Medical Center surgeon who treated Rocha. When asked how many active-duty patients he sees battling cancers comparable to Rocha, his eyes widened.
“Oh gosh,” he said. “It’s pretty rare. Most of these women are very young. … For a young person to have such a diagnosis, it’s worrisome.”
Choi said Rocha was thorough in deciding her medical course of action.
“Despite the fact that it’s such an emotional diagnosis, she thought the entire process through very carefully,” said Choi. “She and I met many times and emailed many times, talking about essentially what the best options for her were.”
Rocha said uncertainty was palpable throughout the process.
“I was heartbroken,” she said. “You’re dealing with the physical part and you’re dealing with the emotional part and you don’t know where you’re going.”
Despite the support of friends who took her to appointments, brought food and visited, Rocha said she faced much of the battle alone.
“All I could do when I would go home was FaceTime my mom, who was devastated,” she said. “She really wanted to be here, but she takes care of my dad who’s ill. … Dealing with surgery and going through that at home alone, that was hard.”
Professionally and medically, Rocha said she dealt with a male-centric cast that was helpful and supportive.
“I want active duty members to know that both males and females can positively impact Airmen on their road to recovery from this disease,” she said. “Before my diagnosis, I figured it was breast cancer survivors or women in general who could assist with my mental and emotional stress, but I was incorrect. The empathy and genuine encouragement I received from an all-male chain of command was enlightening.”
The process to rebuild her breasts, reconstruction, began shortly after the mastectomy and is ongoing, Rocha said. In this final step, she worked with Lt. Col. (Dr.) Bryan Curtis, 60th SGCS chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery, who praised her positive attitude.
“It can be very traumatic for patients to hear the C-word, the cancer word,” said Curtis. “We talk to them, let them know we’re here for them, we’re with them and try to give them the best outcome as possible.”
Rocha praised the staff at DGMC for exactly that sort of treatment.
“(DGMC) got it right,” she said. “All these doctors were very thorough about everything about the process.”
Rocha said she was unable to play the flute for about six months because the healing process limited her movement.
“Playing my instrument was difficult and painful because of my reconstruction, but I found it became easier over time,” she said. “Thankfully, I was able to perform my administrative duties during my recovery, so I didn’t feel like I was behind and could focus on my physical therapy.”
Rocha said the experience has reshaped her outlook, underscoring the reality of an expression about working to live rather than living to work.
“I love my job,” she said. “I work a lot. I’m pretty sure anybody here in the squadron could tell you that I love being here. After this experience, I feel like I have a balance. I feel like I’m a much stronger individual. It’s going to make me a better supervisor and, I think, a better leader in the future.
“I’m happy every day just being able to drive in and knowing that I’m still here and I’m still alive and I don’t have to worry about dealing with something terminal.”
Her story is proof of why women should not ignore or avoid routine mammogram screenings, Rocha said.
“I’m a good case as far as an advertisement for early detection,” she said. “I talked to a lot (of women). You would be surprised how many women are in their late forties or early fifties and they haven’t even had their first mammogram. It’s scary.”