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More than surviving

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Michaela R. Slanchik
  • 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
“Other people get cancer, not me,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Lauren Palmer, a 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron (AMXS) commander support staff (CSS) personnel craftsman. “That will never happen to me.”

That’s exactly what Palmer thought­—even after she noticed a lump on the bottom of her neck in August 2014.

She made a doctor’s appointment to see what else it could be. A biopsy was performed on October 16, and the following Monday she received the official diagnosis.

“I remember being in ALS [Airman Leadership School] after we finished PT [physical training] and were cleaning the building,” said Palmer. “The doctors called me at 3 o’clock and said, ‘You have Hodgkin’s lymphoma.’”

“That was it, I had cancer,” said Palmer.

Hodgkin’s lymphoma, also known as Hodgkin’s disease, is a rare cancer that attacks the lymphatic system.

The 509th AMXS CSS Airman, wife and wingman was now fighting for her life.

“At first I felt crushed; I was upset; I didn’t know what to do,” said Palmer. “I really faced mortality—I had something in my body killing me.”

The Air Force teaches Airmen to be physically, mentally, spiritually and socially fit, but sometimes there is little that can be done to prepare for the struggles they may face. However, you can choose to overcome—and that’s exactly what Palmer chose to do.

David Roberts, Palmer’s husband, said the hardest part at first was when she started losing her hair due to the chemotherapy.

“It’s always been Lauren and Lauren’s hair,” said Roberts. “So when we had to buzz it all off, it was kind of a big deal. I would always fluff her hair up and she would get really mad. I had to do it one last time before we cut it all off. Then we buzzed half of it; then both sides and left the top. I tried to keep it up-beat and positive through the whole thing.”

Roberts said in order to make it more fun, the couple took pictures of her hair in its various stages of being cut off.

Palmer said she was known for her curly hair and felt that part of her identity was missing when she initially lost her hair.

Three days after the hair cut Palmer said, “This saves me an hour every morning. I like this.”
Because of her support system, Palmer said her time going through chemo wasn’t the struggle she had imagined.

“My husband was so supportive; my work was so supportive; my nurses were awesome; and the people around me getting chemo were awesome,” said Palmer. “I was surrounded by a group of people full of vibrancy.”

Even with her support team, the challenges her cancer posed would become increasingly evident in her day-to-day fight.

“I felt tired. I felt nauseous. I felt like I was running a 5K all day, every day,” said Palmer. “I would be sitting on the couch and be out of breath. I would get tired just from walking across the room.”

Palmer said although she felt sick and decrepit, she didn’t want to look or act that way.
“Every time I went to get chemo, I would get dressed up,” said Palmer. “I’d wear a strapless dress so it was easier to get the [chemotherapy] port in. I would put some mascara on my then-little, tiny eyelashes. My nurses were so proud of me.”

Although there were times when Palmer said she would get tired of being sick and was depressed or hopeless, she never let the thoughts stay for very long. She knew she was going to make it through.

“I definitely had my moments where I thought ‘What if this did defeat me? Should I let this defeat me?’” said Palmer. “A lot of the healing comes from your mental attitude. I decided that I was going to get better and make it through cancer. I had plans for the future. I couldn’t not make it.”

Palmer said that she is proud of who she has become as a person. She made a choice to be an optimistic, positive person regardless of the adversity she faced.

“You can sit and wallow, curse and scream, rip your hair out. But where does that get you?” asked Palmer. “It’s not going to take away your cancer or anything else you’re going through. Instead, you can choose to be a positive influence to those around you.”

Palmer said she appreciates her job more now. Every day she strives for excellence and pushes herself to be her best.

“I could be sitting at home feeling sick all day, or I could be at work accomplishing something and helping other people,” said Palmer. “It’s a gift and a joy to put the uniform on and go to work every day. I absolutely love every opportunity the Air Force can provide. I got to marshall a B-2 the other day! I enjoy those once-in-a-lifetime kinds of experiences.”

Between the bills, needing time off of work and a strong support group, Palmer said she was thankful to be a part of the Air Force family throughout the whole experience.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better support system than the military,” said Palmer. “Being able to gain the inspiration and hear the stories of other [non-combat and combat] wounded warriors helped me make it through.”

Palmer was in remission as of Feb. 24, 2015, meaning there was no active cancer. On June 23, 2015, she was declared cancer-free, and on Dec. 10, 2015, her chemotherapy port was removed.

“It was a wonderful, glorious moment in my life,” said Palmer. “My cancer was definitely a very positive time in my life, and I really wouldn’t trade that experience for the world. It really made me appreciate everything that life has to offer and the importance of being here and being alive. I hope to use my cancer and help other people. If I help motivate or inspire someone to be resilient, then it was worth it.”

Today, instead of focusing on her long-term plans, as she used to, Palmer said she focuses on what is happening in any given moment and getting the most out of it.

“What the future holds for me is just trying to maintain a positive and healthy environment for myself and those people around me and trying to remain as resilient and happy as possible,” said Palmer. “I think that’s my goal in life—to be as happy and positive as possible.”