by Carrie Adams
As she washed off in the all-female community shower in the field, Marine GySgt Barbie Ritzo Brown’s hand brushed past a hard lump on her breast. The then 35 year old knew her chances of having breast cancer were small, but there was something troubling about the lump. So she returned her fingers to the spot on her breast and the small node she estimated to be the size of a gumball. It couldn’t be more inconvenient timing for Ritzco, she isn’t just in the field, she’s participating in desert operations preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. All told, the veteran Marine had been serving for 18 years. Iraq, Afghanistan, Germany, Spain, Italy, Ireland, Hawaii, Japan, Romania.
“Been there, got the shot glasses.” She says.
But that day in the shower she made a choice not to report the lump. A choice that would begin a journey that would take her overseas and back again to face not just an enemy abroad but a deadly enemy occupying her own body. She chose to put her country, her team, her soldiers, and her mission ahead of herself and continued on her regular day-to-day work schedule of 12 hours on and 12 hours off, eating one hot meal a day and sleeping in a cot in a hut in the desert at triple digit temperatures preparing for war so she could serve, alongside her beloved Marines, as scheduled in Afghanistan.
Barbie’s sister reached out to me and when I heard her story, I knew it was one that needed to be shared in her own words…
Time passed without my reporting the lump until a few months later when things calmed down and I told my Flight Surgeon about the lump. He does what all good docs do and referred me to someone else to have it checked out. I cancelled the appointment several times, prioritizing hectic work situations and severe sleep deprivation ahead of my appointment. Besides, we were scheduled to deploy again in November 2010. So, once again, I cancel the appointment; actually I think I just forgot about it. I told my doctor, “The lump isn’t going anywhere. It will still be there when I get back.”
I wasn’t going to let a lumpy boob stop me from deploying. Hell no! I went through too much to get to this point to not deploy with my Marines and my Squadron.
As scheduled I deployed to Afghanistan. Well, me, my M16 service rifle, 50 rounds, a Kevlar Flak jacket, gas mask, and unbeknownst to anyone else…my lump. I really didn’t think much of it. There is no history of breast cancer in my family, except for my first cousin Linda who was diagnosed at 30, but because of moving around so much we lost touch during my time in the military. I closely monitored my lump and when I noticed it became slightly larger, I had the doc check it out. He said it felt like a cyst and that he’d recheck in a month and that sounded good to me, but a few weeks passed and it seemed to have grown again. By now, it has taken control of my nipple. Another warning sign – inverted nipple. That’s not a good sign.
But I was in Khandahar at the time, one of the world’s deadliest places. We were working non-stop to support a flight schedule of fighter jets that were constantly dropping bombs on the ground and saving grunt’s lives. In the first few months, we sent 23 Marines home as angels. It felt like every night and day, we were under attack by rockets. We spent hours in bunkers waiting for a sign that all was clear. I was responsible for the lives of the ten Marines under me. We hoped all our training would work, that we’d be able to do our jobs and the situation was extremely stressful. Truth be told, I think that is why my lump doubled in size in such a short time. Every night taking a shower I would dread washing myself because I knew that lump was there. I would cry in the shower every single time. I knew in my heart what it was.
In addition to the stressful environmnet, there was no mammogram equipment at the hospital in Khandahar. It is basically a “stop the bleeding point” for troops before they med-evac them to Landstuhl, Germany. At this point I am finally advised by the doctor about my situation. I am told to pack a bag because I will be gone for a few days. I have no idea that I would not be returning at this point. I was briefed that if the worst case scenario occurs, meaning, Breast Cancer is the diagnosis, then they would send me home. I pile onto a C-130 medical flight headed to Germany. It took a few days to get there. We had to make several stops along the way to pick up combat wounded troops. I finally arrived in Germany at the hospital and was immediately escorted to see a general surgeon. He examined me and we assumed the worst. It looked horrible. A giant lump, an inverted nipple, and swollen lymph nodes…I was a walking pamphlet for Breast Cancer.
He performs a core needle biopsy. The results won’t be available for a few days. I was lucky enough to arrive on a holiday weekend. It was February 11th, 2011. Valentine’s Day would be on Monday. Great! I was able to squeeze in the mammogram and an ultrasound before everyone went home for the day. That was good news. I sat in the barracks for a few days with the rest of the Wounded Warriors. Some will not be returning to the combat zone. We all played the waiting game. My results came back on February 23rd, 2011. I already knew what it said. I was just awaiting confirmation. The Chief of Surgery sat down with me and he tells me that it’s pretty much what we thought: Breast Cancer. I had already prepared myself for this moment while sitting alone in a room for a week. I never told anyone I had left Afghanistan. I didn’t want to worry my family. Now that I knew the results, I had some phone calls to make. I guess that was the hardest part up until now. I called my mom, my husband, my sisters, Brenda and Tammy, and then my dad. I told my mom that I was flying into D.C. and they will start whatever treatment is necessary at Walter Reed in Bethesda, MD.
It was a long year for me. I tried to remember all the details of this journey, but that is impossible. One thing I will never forget is the hurt and pain I felt in knowing that I was not going to return to my Marine family. I trained for months with them for deployment. We had gone through so much together. I felt ripped-off that I would not be able to complete my deployment with them. I was forced to abandon them. I hoped that they would be strong. This would be the defining moment of my leadership and training. If I have trained them right, they would be successful without my physical presence. I would be useless as a leader and a complete failure if they did not succeed. In the end, they all returned home safely. Mission accomplished!
All alone, I arrived in Bethesda MD. My mom arrived the next day. She drove down from PA. It was a Friday. On Monday, I was scheduled for the million tests and scans that we all know too well. I was shuffled for weeks between radiology, cardiology, oncology, surgery, social workers, physical therapists, etc. All the while it seemed as if every person in that hospital had either seen my boobs or palpated them in some way. I was diagnosed at Stage 3B. They could feel about 3 swollen lymph nodes. My lump measured 8cm by 9cm and my eight cycles of Chemotherapy started on March 24th, 2011. I had a Bilateral Mastectomy on August 12th, 2011. After my surgery, the surgeon said 11 out of 11 nodes were cancerous. Only a few of them were actually affected by chemo. Some hadn’t responded at all. I had Radiation Therapy daily for six weeks ending on November 22nd, 2011.
As early as my initial diagnosis, I informed my doctors that I would not stop running. I told him I was running the Crossroads 17.75K on September 17, 2011, which was 30 days after my mastectomy, and he said he was operating on my boobs not my legs. That was exactly what I wanted to hear and my legs haven’t failed me yet. I ran the Marine Corps Marathon October 20, 2011, Disney World Half Marathon January 7th, 2012 all during treatment.
Surgery to remove my ovaries and fallopian tubes was performed on January 18th, 2012 due to being tested BRCA2+, which makes me at a high risk for Ovarian Cancer. I continued to run and completed the Thrills in the Hills Half Marathon in GA on February 25th, 2012 and the next day on February 26th, I finished the Augusta Half Marathon. A few other races I completed are the Cherry Blossom 10miler, Irish Sprint, Hollywood Half Marathon, Run for the Dream Half Marathon, Run for the Dream 8k, NYC Hope and Possibility 5M, Disneyland Half Marathon, Awesome 80s Run, Tough Mudder, YSC Tour de Pink East Coast Philly to DC, and Air Force Cycling Challenge.
In the next few months I am registered and preparing for Spartan Race in SC and TX, NYC Marathon, Hollywood FL Half Marathon and LA New Year’s Half Marathon, Just to name a few…
I am a member of the Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Vets, which helps train and prepare mentally and physically for my races. The Spartan Race is one of the challenges on my Bucket List. It is a tool that I have been using to motivate me and push me through my hardest days. I try to remain positive and active and moving forward. A few weeks ago, I was able to skydive as part of a Fearless Women’s movement and in November, I am going surfing in Costa Rica. I’ll be running with the Team X-T.R.E.M.E. Heroe’s Heat at 9:50 and am thrilled to know that Susan G. Komen Charlotte chapter will be a part of the day!
Read more about Barbie’s story and her involvement in The SCAR Project HERE.
[Editor’s Note: October is Breast Cancer awareness month, and in light of the battle so many of our women (Spartan and otherwise) face, we’re going PINK in our October races to give a voice and a light to those who have been affected. South Carolina will feature a survivor heat and we’ll have Susan G. Komen of Charlotte on-hand who will get 50% of the proceeds from the heat planned in their honor. For all women, breast cancer is a terrifying thought. And while only 7% of all breast cancer diagnoses come to women under the age of 40, when you do the math, it’s not a comforting statistic. According to cancer research, roughly 227,000 women will be newly diagnosed with breast cancer this year and a going rate of 7% that is still almost 16,000 women.
The reality is that breast cancer can strike at any age, and women of every age should be aware of their personal risk factors for breast cancer.
There are several factors that put a woman at high risk for developing breast cancer, including:
A personal history of breast cancer or some noncancerous breast diseases.
A family history of breast cancer, particularly in a mother, daughter, or sister.
History of radiation therapy to the chest before age 40.
Evidence of a specific genetic defect (BRCA1/BRCA2 mutation); women who carry defects on either of these genes are at greater risk for developing breast cancer. According to Barbie’s sister Brenda, she and her two sisters have this defect making their risk of developing breast cancer in their lifetime close to 80%
A Gail Index score of at least 1.7% for the development of breast cancer within 5 years, or 20% lifetime risk (to age 90). (The Gail Index uses risk factors such as age, family history of breast cancer, age of first menstrual period and first pregnancy, and number of breast biopsies, to calculate a woman's risk of developing breast cancer within the next five years.)]