My home away from home

Airman Shawna Keyes (left), 4th Fighter Wing Public Affairs photojournalist, takes a photo with Leta Matte, Oct. 9, 2016, in Matthews, North Carolina. Matte has been undergoing chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer for the past two months. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Shawna L. Keyes)

Airman Shawna Keyes (left), 4th Fighter Wing Public Affairs photojournalist, takes a photo with Leta Matte, Oct. 9, 2016, in Matthews, North Carolina. Matte has been undergoing chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer for the past two months. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Shawna L. Keyes)

Leta Matte poses for photographer Brad Starks in 1989. Matte was just 19 years old when she began modeling. (Courtesy photo)

Leta Matte poses for photographer Brad Starks in 1989. Matte was just 19 years old when she began modeling. (Courtesy photo)

Leta Matte climbs stairs with her child to the Lion’s Mound, Aug. 21, 2011, in Braine-I’Alleud, Belgium. Matte and her family spent two years in Belgium for her husband’s work. This photo was taken five years before Matte was diagnosed with breast cancer. (Courtesy photo)

Leta Matte climbs stairs with her child to the Lion’s Mound, Aug. 21, 2011, in Braine-I’Alleud, Belgium. Matte and her family spent two years in Belgium for her husband’s work. This photo was taken five years before Matte was diagnosed with breast cancer. (Courtesy photo)

SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. --

Cancer.

The word reaches your ears and your heart stops.

Your blood chills and your breath catches.

Cancer is never a word you want to hear, say, or wish upon anyone. But hear it, I did.

It was early June of this year when I received a phone call I would never forget. I joyfully answered, wondering what it was about. The conversation started pleasantly, but then it steered in a different direction by telling me she needed to tell me something important.

My enthusiasm for the call dropped slightly as I anticipated what it was that she wanted to tell me.

“I have breast cancer.”

My Aunt Leta left home after graduating high school for Phoenix and began modeling six months after getting there. She’s traveled to Chicago, Atlanta, New York, Paris, Milan, Tokyo, and Sydney before finally settling down in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Growing up, I never saw a lot of my dad’s little sister since we lived in the Northwest, but I always knew she was there for me if I ever needed someone to talk to. She’s the type of person that you don’t have to talk to everyday to know that you have a meaningful relationship with her.

After joining and the military and moving across the country, away from my family, my aunt was there to welcome me into her home. My first Thanksgiving was spent with her, my uncle, and two little cousins. Since moving to North Carolina, three years ago, I’ve been able to develop an even closer bond with her. She’s my home away from home.

After my aunt spoke the words “breast cancer,” I felt my world stop. My eyes immediately began to tear up and I hung on every word my aunt spoke next.

She told me she’d just found out and the doctors were still conducting tests to find out what kind of breast cancer she had. She was still waiting to tell my cousins what was happening until she had more information.

Through my tears, all I wanted to know was if she was going to be okay, because even though you hear about women getting breast cancer and getting well, it’s still not something you want someone close to you going through.

All through the conversation, my aunt was concerned about how I was feeling and to make sure I was okay. Yet she was the one telling me she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.  

After we hung up, I was almost immediately on the internet looking at all the statistics.

A few weeks went by and my aunt learned she had low grade lobular invasive carcinoma, which is a type of breast cancer that begins in the milk-producing glands of the breast. The invasive cancer means the cancer cells have broken out of the glands and have the potential to spread to the lymph nodes and other areas of the body.

My aunt received a double mastectomy which is when the entire breast is removed, including all the breast tissue.

Everything went well with the surgery, and the doctors were hopeful that just performing the mastectomy would be enough and she’d just have to do hormone therapy.

Unfortunately, they discovered cancer in her lymph nodes as well. This meant my aunt will have to go through months of chemotherapy treatment, followed by radiation.

Before my aunt started her chemotherapy, she cut her hair short to get my cousins used to her having little to no hair. A few weeks into the chemotherapy my aunt decided to shave the remainder of her hair off.

Knowing she was going through chemotherapy and actually seeing her go through it were two different things. I’m not sure what I expected, but when I came to visit she greeted me just the same as she always did; we a big smile and a hug.

During my visit, we talked about her treatments and how they were making her feel. Always an open book she answered any questions I had and really expressed to me the importance of understanding my own body.

She told me that she had noticed a lump in her breast several years ago and her doctor had even performed a lumpectomy in 2011, but had found no cancer. Even still she did self-examinations and discovered early this year that something felt wrong. That’s when she found out that even though she’d had the lumpectomy somehow the cancer was missed or showed up sometime after the surgery.

She stressed to me that had she not been diligent in her own examinations. The cancer could have gone unnoticed for years and her prognosis grown worse. And even then, her early findings didn’t clear her of developing cancer later.    

I know my aunt has a long road ahead, and some days or even weeks, are going to be worse than others, but I know she’s going to get through all the treatments and be cancer free. I might not be able to be with her 24/7, but I’m always praying for her, and whenever she needs me, I’m willing to drop everything and be there.

She’s my home away from home.