By Lt Col Jerry L. Ottinger II, 7th Logistics Readines Squadron
/ Published October 25, 2017
DYESS AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Pink shirts and awareness walks will occur, all for the purpose of bringing attention to this indiscriminant disease that over 316,000 Americans will be newly diagnosed with this year. I was aware of these stats and generally supported this cause since my grandmother beat breast cancer years ago, but in 2014 the issue became intensely personal and I want to share a perspective not often told- the experience of a spouse supporting a warrior fighting breast cancer, in my case the story of the lovely Desiree Ottinger fighting breast cancer while pregnant with our seventh child.
We moved to California in 2014 to take command of the 9th Logistics Readiness Squadron, our eighth military permanent change of station, and a new adventure we had looked forward to for a long time. Command is a pinnacle event for officers, and Desiree looked forward to her role helping Airmen and their families. We knew the work would be tough, and it was.
Five months into the experience, we found that the squadron was coming together and we were slaying most of the challenges we faced. We were elated when we found out in October that we would be expecting a new Ottinger, which was a welcome surprise as our other six children absolutely needed a little brother. It was weeks later that our bubble burst, however, when a little lump, not bigger than a BB, needed to be looked into. I encouraged Desiree “not to stress until we have a reason to.” There was no history of cancer in her family, after all, so we were just being cautious.
The day of our squadron Thanksgiving gathering in November we were given a reason to stress when we had to leave abruptly to go to the clinic. A doctor there who had a cold bedside manner and very stoic demeanor told us that the test results showed an invasive ductal carcinoma. I remember him pausing and asked how many weeks pregnant Desiree was, remarking after we answered that “hmmm…it is a fetus.” I don’t remember much else except after that except being shuffled toward another doctor and then a counsellor to pick a cancer doctor. I do distinctly remember not knowing what to do next and the realizing that there was absolutely nothing I could do to fix this problem
There were doctors. Lots of oncologists who all talked about the fact that “there were two patients” and who told us by what percentage that they could reduce risk of the cancer coming back. There were funny doctors who became friends, and others who weren’t so friendly but were highly skilled. There were also lots strangers who, although weren’t doctors, who proved to have vital information about button-up shirts (so you don’t have to raise your hands over your head), “kangaroo” pouches, and the need for a comfortable recliner (because getting in/out of bed was not going to be possible for a bit). And there were hundreds of pages of research in English and other languages that thanks to Google Translate helped me understand the risks and outcomes of pregnancy during cancer treatment. However, even with the tons of people who were constantly asking what they could do to help, it was a question that Desiree and I had no idea how to answer.
Imagine that for a minute- facing a huge problem with a literal army ready to help, but not even knowing what to ask for. I knew we needed help, and I knew that I hated that needed help, but we didn’t know where to start. But this is the cool thing- that army stood by us and patiently waited while we figured it out, then they jumped to our aid with every need that arose. This is where the story really starts.
First, I want to talk about social support. From all over, blood relatives, Air Force family, and even college mates rallied to our side. Whether they literally flew in or sent little gifts and cards, they reminded us that we were loved. People scheduled visits to come in from all over the United States to help us and our children. They sat by Desiree’s side and encouraged her, cooked meals, and kept our homeschool lessons on track. They took the kids out to just be kids at Chuck-E-Cheese and the local playground. They made sure Desiree never went to an appointment alone, be it me or them who accompanied her. They also sent prayers from all over the world which propped us up. This is the army I mentioned earlier, and from a place of need this social network appeared to carry us through.
Equally important was mental and spiritual support. These are real things. Cancer is brutal, and breast cancer has especially visible impacts. A favorite dress or tank top didn’t fit anymore and exposed scars. Desiree is amazing and strong, but it took a toll and had to be addressed; it is impossible to be strong all the time. Putting on a fake smile and trying to press on isn’t enough. It took more than me telling her she is beautiful, which is a clear truth…it took her friends and family and the squadron reminding her how amazing she is through pregnancy, surgeries, chemotherapy, and countless appointments. It also took professionals in the form of doctors, nurses, and the chaplains.
The medical staff and chaplains always asked how we are holding up. They weren’t intrusive, and their encouragement and recognition that our situation was a hard one made sure we remembered to acknowledge that it was okay to have hard days. The base chapel personnel checked in, continuously popping in my office from the week of the diagnosis until the change-of-command. We knew it was okay to be sad… and angry… and everything in between. We knew it, and though I tried to keep the focus on helping Desiree, these folks never forgot me. Even though I thought I had to be a rock, unshakeable and always there to support my family, my squadron and the people helping us, they knew to remind me that feelings are okay and that I couldn’t just run away the stressors. And I don’t mean run away like avoid. I ran like Forrest Gump, then I biked once my knees gave out, which brings me to the physical toll.
I used to hate running. In this situation, I chose to cope, reset, and get perspective by using my free time on the treadmill and Beale running paths. I would make free time at 2300, after I finally finished in my office, to run. The family was asleep, so I thought it perfectly logical since I was not ignoring any obligations. When things got heavy I ran until it hurt, and then I ran more anyway. I ran until I needed my own doctors who took care of me, from my head down instead of my ankles up. This help also made me realize that it might have been better if I was eating well, but I wasn’t.
Cancer treatments kill cancer cells with poison. Surgeries remove body parts. The physical toll on Desiree was enormous, and when the patient doesn’t want to eat, eating in front of her wasn’t going to happen no matter how much she said it was okay. And when we did eat, between all those doctor visits that required a 45 minute drive each way, healthy options were hard to find while Chick-fil-A, In-N-Out were easy. But when we didn’t eat or didn’t eat right, healing was slower and the mental strain of trying to remain positive is really tough. You cannot ignore nutrition, and the people bringing us meals sometimes, who went out of their way to make sure it was real food, reminded us of that. So did a chaplain, who reminded me that, “you cannot serve from an empty vessel.” And so I tried to eat healthier and more often, and in turn it helped Desiree to eat more and healthier.
There is a group of people who were especially critical to Desiree and I getting through cancer treatment, welcoming our baby, and keeping our sanity. In a way that I’ve only ever seen military people do, my military family rallied to push us forward. My wing and group commanders made sure I focused on home, even when I tried to distract myself with work, and my 9 LRS family was always there. They were responsible for providing logistics, fuels and deployment support to the ISR missions at Beale Air Force Base, and they did that job incredibly well, but they never forgot that they were responsible for providing support to each other and to Desiree and me.
Flexibility was the key to our success. Though days sometimes involved 6:45 a.m. departures for treatment in Sacramento and my workday would not start until 12:00 p.m., the team knew what to call me on the iPhone about and what to handle themselves. When I got in, they would have everything ready so that we could effectively use our time available. And after the baby was born, when we started another round of chemotherapy, I would bring him in so Desiree could rest and they helped me with him. He would sleep, and if he woke up while I had something to do a teammate would take him to their office. If I had a meeting, I’d find him later bouncing on a knee while one of my Airmen cut orders for a deployer or wrote a report. The mission never missed a beat, and that baby knew he was loved.
We are in our second command now here at Dyess, and the appointments are fewer and less intrusive. Desiree’s health is better and the cancer is in remission, and our balance it back (though some might say I probably work too much). And the baby... that kid is so healthy that we can barely keep up. The army that supported us still checks in, and there is no way we can every repay them for their help. The thing that is humbling and truly amazing is that they don’t expect it.
To anyone still reading this long tale, my final message is this: Cancer sucks but our collective strength is the only way to beat it. You are the key to recovery and your support could be the reason a person fights on if a family member, friend, or coworker gets sick. We needed help, and though we didn’t know what we needed people were there or we wouldn’t be here whole and fighting on. “Thank you” isn’t enough, but might be all there is to offer. So thank you in advance for being there if the need arises.