Airman, Leader, Warrior: A two time cancer survivor's journey

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Amber Williams
  • 180th Fighter Wing
"I'm going to hit you with the whole kitchen sink," said the oncologist to Senior Master Sgt. Dale Przyojski, before her first chemotherapy treatment after her second diagnosis of breast cancer.

Przyojski, a finance superintendent at the 180th Fighter Wing, found a lump on her breast in April of 2011. A month later, while driving home with her husband, from the Cleveland Clinic after his knee replacement surgery, it was confirmed over the car's Bluetooth by her doctor; It was cancer.

The youngest of seven, she had a brother who had passed away from melanoma and a few years after his death, her sister was diagnosed. Following her sister's diagnosis, she was recommended to take the breast cancer test, commonly referred to as BRCA. The BRCA test recently gained recognition when actress, Angelina Jolie, had a double mastectomy after finding she was high risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Test results for Przyojski were positive for BRCA1. BRCA1 means the protective gene that normally limits tumor growth is altered and unlikely to stop cancer from growing and can significantly increase the chances of breast and ovarian cancer.

After the confirmation of BRCA1 and cancer, Przyojski and her family decided to be aggressive through the treatments and agreed the best plan of action was a double mastectomy followed by immediate reconstruction within the same day. "The first surgeon removed the tumor, several lymph nodes and all of the breast tissue on each side," said Przyojski. "Then the plastic surgeon comes in and surgically inserted expanders under the chest muscles." Przyojski was in surgery for ten hours with her family in the waiting room. "I can't imagine waiting that long in a hospital with the anticipation as to whether they got all of the cancer or not," Przyojski exclaimed.

Following the surgery Przyojski returned, bi-weekly, to have the expanders filled with a saline-like solution. "It was not a pleasant experience. Every time the expanders were filled, the muscles also had to expand," explained Przyojski. "The pain from the surgery was excruciating." It left her unable to lift herself out of her chair. To add to the physical and emotional challenges, two months later she had a total hysterectomy to eliminate her chances of ovarian cancer.

"I didn't need chemo or radiation because the cancer did not spread to the lymph nodes," said Przyojski. "I was so happy! I was done with cancer!"

Several months later, the oncologist recommended for Przyojski to come back for an MRI now that a standard mammogram was impossible. Eighteen months after the first diagnosis the cancer was back and had spread to her lymph nodes. "I was absolutely devastated. I felt so defeated," said Przyojski. "I thought after having the mastectomy, I would never have to deal with it again. How is it back?"

Because a tumor had formed again, this time under an implant, both the tumor and one implant had to be removed without the option of reconstruction a second time. "My wonderful daughter, Melissa was there with me the first time I took the bandages off. I probably would have hit the floor if she had not been physically supporting me," said Przyojski. "My husband kept reminding me that it didn't matter; he just wanted me to stay alive."

The physical loss from the surgery was tough to cope with for Przyojski. "Sometimes I would think to myself, 'be real Dale, what about those military members who have lost a limb or two.' I can conceal my loss, they cannot. I am still here and alive so I shouldn't complain."

From there, they began the "kitchen sink" chemo regimen, which was the doctor's way to give Przyojski the strongest chemo drugs possible. After only three weeks she was back in the hospital because her blood counts had dropped dangerously low.

"The first couple of weeks my hair didn't seem to be falling out. I thought maybe I would get lucky and not lose my hair." said Przyojski. "By the third week, however, I would lose some hair every time I touched it. I didn't want to find clumps of hair on my pillow each morning so I asked my son, Steven, to do the honors." Two of Przyojski's sisters decided to shave their heads as well for support. "I really tried to talk my sisters out of it, but they insisted."

Over time, Przyojski noticed extreme sensitivity at the tips of her fingers. Soon, her finger nails and toe nails were discolored and black. She had every possible side effect of chemo from losing hair and nails, constant watery eyes, a sensitive scalp and hot flashes from the chemo and the immediate menopause from her hysterectomy. In addition, she developed an incredibly weak immune system, nausea and vomiting. She ached all the time and there was no escape from the endless pain.

Fortunately, her husband was able to attend every chemo treatment with her. Which typically lasted about four hours. "I felt bad sometimes because I would just lay there hooked up to the chemo drugs. Sometimes we would talk, sometimes I would sleep, but he insisted on being there, which I was very thankful for," said Przyojski. "It just isn't a pleasant place. If you look around the room, we are all bald and sick, and it isn't always encouraging. However, the nursing staff and the people are amazing."

Przyojski had phenomenal support from her family and friends. Her children, also members of the 180th Fighter Wing, Master Sgt. Melissa Hurst and Senior Airmen Steven Przyojski, were over all of the time to help. "Between my brother and me, he is much more humorous than I am, he could just come over and make her laugh to get her mind off of it," said Hurst, an associate health technician. "Whereas, I am more subdued, able to really listen, and just have maybe a better understanding of what she may have needed. I feel we both complemented each other and brought something unique to her."

Despite all the help everyone offered, the cancer had created a very dark place for Przyojski. "I was on autopilot for about two years. I was just numb through the whole experience. I don't think I ever let myself experience what was really happening. I tried to stay happy tell myself 'this is okay' and 'we can do this'. I just did things," said Przyojski. "I did some journaling at the time. I've gone back and read it. There is some pretty deep stuff in there. Now, I am almost able to feel it. Sometimes, I would find myself in a deep dark place and all of a sudden Melissa would come over with my grandson and that would just immediately put everything back into perspective. Whenever I found myself in that dark place, someone would usually arrive shortly after. Sometimes someone would call and just talk to me enough to give me enough to take my mind off of everything."

"At first, I was really against going to a support group because I felt I could handle everything," said Przyojski. "I realized I couldn't." She started attending the Victory Center, which offers everything including massages, reflexology, and yoga. "I felt guilty for being at some of the support meetings," said Przyojski. "With my initial diagnosis of cancer I didn't have to go through chemo. I broke down in one of the sessions. I felt so guilty, I was there, when everyone else had to go through chemo and radiation, I didn't. One women looked at me and said, 'and we all have our breasts too'," elaborated Przyojski. This was enough to give her some understanding, just because she hadn't gone through the same experiences the other survivors had, she still had to make sacrifices.

"Sometimes I would reach out to other people to call my mom because I knew she was afraid to tell me certain things out of concern she was burdening me," said Hurst. "She said that very few times, but I know she felt it many times. There were times someone else needed to reach out to her. She may not tell me, but she might tell someone else. We all had to learn to be open with each other to support each other."

Przyojski decided not to go through with her last round of chemo. "I thought if I had to go through just one more chemo session, it was going to kill me." Her family was supportive of the decision as she continued with routine radiation until August of 2013.

As of November 2013, Przyojski was cancer free. In March of 2014, Przyojski had to perform her first fitness test since before the surgeries, chemo and radiation. "I've had so many surgeries, each time they are cutting a lot of muscle. My upper body strength was so weak," said Przyojski. "My husband kept pushing me and helping me train. I scored an excellent on the test! I practiced so hard. I don't know how I did it. This was my first PT test that I truly felt proud of myself." Przyojski is still recovering from the cancer and everything that came along with it. Slowly, she is getting back to most of the things she was able to do before. Most recently, she was able to do a handstand again for the first time since the cancer, as part of her yoga routine.

During and after her recovery, Przyojski took part in a handful of Susan G. Komen events. While in the support meetings earlier, she had remembered one woman mentioning the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. "I started doing some research on it. I never really thought people would volunteer to do it with me, but six people jumped at the chance, which is part of why the team name is Dale's Dedicated Divas."

"I am more invested in the Avon Walk opposed to the Susan G. Komen events for a couple of reasons. For one, the Avon Walk seems to be more of a challenge for me. I feel I still need to prove to myself the cancer is not winning. Secondly, I appreciate that the funds go towards cancer victims who are not insured or under insured," said Przyojski. This hits particularly close to home for Przyojski as she previously had to watch her sister battle breast cancer without the benefits of insurance. "I know how hard it was for her. There were times she went without the medication she needed. For me, I never had to worry about getting my medications or the financial burden because I have insurance that covered me."

Now, Przyojski and Dale's Dedicated Divas, are raising money for the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. Each team member had a goal of $1,800 and a team goal of $12,600. With help of family, friends and members of the 180th Fighter Wing, they have exceeded their goal and raised over $18,000.

"Cancer has taught me that I am much tougher than I thought I ever could be," said Przyojski. "It has taught me to be more compassionate. Sometimes you don't have any understanding of what someone might be going through. This has shown me the strength of my husband and kids. It also teaches you what true friendship is. It is only when it is inconvenient and uncomfortable that you learn who your true friends are," concluded Przyojski. "Melissa was a rock, my rock, through the entire thing. She is my little girl, I was afraid she was fragile. Now, I know she can handle anything that comes her way," said Przyojski with a smile.

"I saw a side of my son that touched a very special place in my heart. He was there for me for anything I needed. He held my hair back for me when I got sick. Other times, he would go out in search of meals that I could keep down. Sometimes he could make me laugh when I didn't know I had another smile in me," Przyojski continued.

"And I know now that my husband and I can go through anything together. He loves me for who I am, not what I look like. That's a love I hope everyone can experience,"
"This experience made me realize what is really important in life. I don't fret about the small things like I used to, said Przyojski. "You might totally screw up one day, but tomorrow is another day, life moves on. The light does shine again."

Five 180th Fighter Wing Airmen, out of six team members, will be taking part in the walk as part of Dale's Dedicated Diva's. The walk will take place in Chicago, May 31-June 1, 2014. Dale's Dedicated Diva's will walk 39 miles throughout a two-day period.
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