Cancer and the Military: A Survivor’s Story

I grew up in a small town in central Minnesota. I was by no means a great student; I wasn’t dedicated to schoolwork, or really to anything at the time. My dad had passed away in my freshman year of high school, and I had subsequently checked out and found an outlet in working part time at a local department store. I did, however, make time to find trouble as a teenager.

This all changed when I found out that I could enlist into the National Guard at age 17. I guess I felt like I finally found a purpose. My grandparents were veterans and so the National Guard allowed me to feel like I had a bigger family and that I was contributing to something much bigger than myself. This was good for a kid who really wasn’t prepared to lose her father – her best friend, truthfully – at such a young age.

Joining the Guard did help me get on the straight and narrow. I got my life together (for the most part) and managed to graduate high school through the local alternative school a few months early. I participated in area scholarship pageants; those were alright but turned out to be not my style. I moved out on my own after I graduated basic training as a high school junior. As a senior, I was already in my second apartment before I graduated.

I worked full time in the Brainerd Lakes Area, both at a local gas station chain and a restaurant that managed to last four years before it closed. I volunteered occasionally at my local VFW post, with the American Legion, and sometimes the Military Order of the Purple Heart, as I had throughout my teen years. Everyone knows everyone for the most part, and my favorite people were the veterans on the VFW’s Color Guard who treated me like I was their own granddaughter.

Fast forward to a couple months prior to high school graduation. I had felt great, and looked great; at 18 years old, I was unstoppable. I had just graduated basic training the summer before my senior year of high school, and nobody could tell me anything. I knew everything (or so I thought).

I had some back pain that woke me up one night before a long day of working at both jobs and subsequent pageant practice. It wasn’t a big deal until I found myself in an Iron Range emergency room, sobbing hysterically. My pain would sometimes come on strong then disappear but it would always come back. I was told I had a UTI, given just 800 milligrams of ibuprofen, and sent back home.

Three months later, it was high school graduation and I was having the time of my life. I lived on my own and purchased my first car. I had a pageant five days before I would ship out to Fort Leonard Wood, MO for Advanced Individual Training, or what most people in the military would call your “job school”.

While at training, I noticed I was having back pain again, and decided to go to the sick call for trainees at the aid station next to the school house. I got assessed and was told it was most likely because my female back was incapable handling the weight of a ruck, given a profile for a couple days, and was given some Motrin.

I struggled with PT tests. I thought I was in extremely good shape, but I would just about die at what would be considered 60 percent, or just passing. I failed a couple of them, so I was given battle buddies to work out with, and my roommates were instructed to hold me accountable for exercising on my own time.

I worked out almost every chance I could. People watched what I ate. I was regularly called a fat body for not being able to make it, even though I was only 130 pounds soaking wet. I would eventually pass my PT test before graduating and coming back home in September.

I was sexually assaulted by my own boyfriend at the time upon returning home from AIT.  He was another soldier in the guard. I didn’t have the chance to even report to my first unit and in-process yet, so I kept it to myself. I didn’t want to be known as “the girl who showed up with a SHARP case”. I had been harassed after basic training by someone who I considered a mentor, so I just shouldered it. I didn’t know any local resources, anyway, and thought I was good at carrying things on my own.

It was exactly a week after I had graduated and came home that I would end up in my hometown emergency room, again with the chief complaint of severe back pain. Upon being scanned, it was revealed that I had an ovarian cyst. The doctor had mentioned something about abnormal lymphadenopathy but it supposedly wasn’t that important. I finally had an answer at least, so surgery to lance the cyst was scheduled.

Two weeks later, surgery went fine. The problem is that a month and a half after healing, I still had the same back pain. I had to move to the metropolitan area to start school that spring semester, so I was never told that I had a follow up PET scan scheduled in my hometown. I didn’t even know what the hell a PET scan was or what for. So when they called to tell me I missed it, I completely didn’t even understand what they were talking about. I didn’t have a car at the time and couldn’t get to somewhere two hours away to go to an appointment that I didn’t even know was scheduled on my behalf without my knowledge.

Despite some tumultuous weeks of couch surfing until I had moved in with a friend and her parents, I had met my now husband from Tinder on December 10th, 2016. We had the best first date, resulting in poor contraceptive choices for the next two weeks. He had left to basic training for the Air Force a few days after New Years 2017. I scheduled a primary care appointment in Maplewood, Minnesota to establish care and get birth control.

A friend dropped me off at the door of the clinic. It was a cold day in early January and I had just started my first week ever of college, and I was so excited to be free of the clutches of a small town. I had met the love of my life. I was able to finally feel comfortable with someone after my assault. Nobody else believed me, but he did, and that was enough. Anyway, the nurse practitioner was extremely kind and patient with me. She explained that I was randomly assigned to her through her system’s algorithm so she didn’t really get a chance to know more about me before my appointment.

I had asked her right away for a prescription of birth control so I wouldn’t forget. But earlier that week at work, a coworker had pointed out that I had some really weird looking bumps on my neck. I had been falling asleep at work in the walk in cooler and in the pantry. After driving my new car to my new job interview, I fell asleep while parking and rolled into the curb. Every day after working at the gym cafe, I would go to the hot tub because it was the only way to manage my back pain since the ibuprofen didn’t cut it anymore. I never really could make it through a work out because I was so tired all the time. So much for the free gym membership.

The nurse practitioner was listening to me talk about my symptoms: the fatigue, the itching, the back pain, and the painful lymph nodes in my armpits and neck. What was something she and I both thought was a routine establishing care appointment quickly turned into a nightmare. Usually, it’s never a good sign when a provider schedules a PET scan the next morning. At least this time I showed up – hangry, but I actually understood what it was for.

The next day, I would be sitting at my friend’s dining table when I got the phone call that would change my life forever.

At 19 years old, I was diagnosed with Stage 4B Hodgkin’s lymphoma. 4 months prior, I was just graduating training in the Army.

What people need to realize about cancer is that it’s not a monolith. It’s not something you ask for. There’s nothing you could do to prevent it. You can’t diet your way out of it, you didn’t get this because you smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol. Even the people that do don’t deserve this as a result of their choices. 

Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a slow growing cancer. With proper acknowledgement of someone’s symptoms, it can be caught in its earliest stages and taken care of with less invasive measures of cancer treatment, often with little long term side effects. But because our symptoms are things that can be easily waved off as benign issues unless someone identifies the pattern, those symptoms are often dismissed until it’s too late.

Every year, 180,000 people enlist in the United States Military. According to American Cancer Society, about 80,000 young adults aged 20 to 39 are diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States. About 5% of all cancers are diagnosed in people in this age range.

You may think because you’ve met the medical standards to enlist that somehow you are immune from a cancer diagnosis as a young adult; at least I did. Yet in my three years of survivorship, I’m finding more and more people from the military every year with similar stories (usually through social media). I’m even finding more young women with Hodgkin’s lymphoma; their stories sound exactly like mine, complete with personal accounts of being dismissed.

I was able to return to the guard after I completed treatment. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t challenging. I am still navigating side effects from cancer treatment every day. I am absolutely blessed to say that I was able to go on to have two beautiful daughters, an opportunity that many of my cancer friends usually do not have because harsh treatment methods often leave them infertile.

Today, I’m in the Inactive Ready Reserve figuring out my next move after having two children back-to-back. I was lucky to become pregnant. I was lucky to be alive. 

My husband will deploy this winter, and I aspire to enlist back in while he’s away. I’m a business management student at a local San Antonio community college and enrolled in a clinical medical assistant program online simultaneously. I hope to someday be lucky enough to go to medical school, maybe even in the same hospital I had cancer treatment. 

I was able to do this all by finding my cancer community over social media. I shouldered a lot of pain on my own before, but this time I couldn’t do it without support. I lost a lot of friends, but gained new ones. Unfortunately, with these awful diseases, I’ve had to bury a lot as well.

One of the things that I’m most proud of is creating a nonprofit specifically dedicated to service members faced with a cancer diagnosis. Admittedly, I am totally undereducated to do this, but I have a lot of aspirations for the directions of where I plan to go in the future with my organization. I’ve been working on it since 2018, and have been able to help a few along the way. You can find us at combatbootsncancer.org.

If there’s anything you take from my story, I hope that it’s this: never stop listening to your body. It will get you through many things until it can’t anymore. An observation a friend and brain cancer survivor, Anna-Christina Betekhtin, commented the other day that “dying of cancer doesn’t really feel like dying at all. It feels like a bunch of naps until it doesn’t feel like anything anymore.”

This story is dedicated to Lance Corporal Melissa Ugalde, United States Marine Corps, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma recently. It takes a special kind of woman to become a Marine, but an even bigger badass to do it all with cancer. I hope that by sharing my story with you, it gives you consolation knowing you’re not the only one. Love you man, and we’re going to get through this together. It takes a village and we’re behind you every step of the way.

SPC Sheyla Scholl enlisted in the Minnesota National Guard in 2015. You can find more of her stories here: theterminallyillest.com.