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Reservist celebrates 6 years of cancer remission

  • Published
  • By Capt. Elizabeth Caraway
  • 445th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

Sept. 4, 2008, began as a typical day for Master Sgt. Sandi Golden-Vest.

She was serving as the clinical management flight superintendent with the 445th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron and as a self-described "hard-charger," she was busy fulfilling tasks for the upcoming Health Services Inspection when she experienced heart palpitations. She became short of breath and had chest pains.

When her husband threatened to take her to the emergency room, she made an appointment with a cardiologist and later had her blood drawn. An urgent call from the doctor later sent her to the emergency room, where she was as stunned as everyone else with the diagnosis -- Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML) sub type 2, a rare form of cancer. She was told if she made it two weeks, it would be a miracle.

"I couldn't believe it,” Golden-Vest said. “Suddenly everything came to a screeching halt. I sat there in the hospital bed, looked at the doctor and said, 'I don't have time for this.'"

Golden-Vest had to make time. She spent the next four months in the Ohio State University James Cancer Hospital and she spent 16 months receiving chemotherapy treatments. There is no cure for her type of cancer, but the Airman discovered she had good "cytogenetics" --her cells were strong enough to handle the chemotherapy drugs to fight the rare and dangerous disease.

AML is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. The word "acute" in the disease’s name denotes its rapid progression. AML affects a group of white blood cells called the myeloid cells, which normally develop into the various types of mature blood cells, such as red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Subtype 2 is the last stage of development before the immature cell commits to becoming a white or red blood cell, or platelet.

A wife and mother of four, Golden-Vest admits that she was fearful her youngest child, then 6-years-old, would grow up not remembering his mother. Soon after being admitted to the hospital, the base judge advocate general visited to update her will, and the chaplain also stopped in.

"That was one of the hardest things I've had to do," says Golden-Vest, pausing for a long moment. "Discussing my own funeral arrangements with the chaplain and my husband was ... it was very difficult."

Her husband, Marcus, "carried a huge weight," caring for the children, working full time and taking care of the house, even as he visited her in the hospital frequently and tried to keep her spirits up.

"I had to do things to stay positive,” she said. “I could either lay there and think about the cancer and end up in a very dark place, or I could stay busy. It's a state of mind."

In addition to reading and going on frequent walks, she began a blog about her experiences with AML. She found that when she searched the Internet, all that came up was memorial sites, which was demoralizing. Her blog was a place to chronicle her experiences, good and bad, and was "therapeutic." She has since been contacted by private organizations to speak about her experiences, as well as by people undergoing treatment. She is also active in the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's "Light the Night Walk" fundraising campaign.

The support from fellow Airmen throughout her hospital stay and chemotherapy was also humbling, she said. Chief Master Sgt. James Felton, the 445th AW command chief, was the 445th AES first sergeant at the time and visited her many times in the hospital.

"I'd try to shoo him out and tell him to go home, but he would stay and visit with me until late in the evening,” Golden-Vest said. “I will never forget that."

The wing organized a successful bone marrow drive in April 2009, encouraging Airmen to sign up for the C.W. Bill Young/DOD Marrow Donor Program. Ultimately, Golden-Vest didn't find a bone-marrow match, and she still hasn't found one to this day. Instead, in addition to the standard AML chemotherapy regimen, she elected to be a participant in a clinical trial for a new drug, a high-dosage chemotherapy treatment. She is certain that treatment saved her life. The bone marrow drive made a difference in at least one life, though; one Airman was called as a match for another cancer patient.

The treatment for Golden-Vest included many blood infusions. Throughout the course of her leukemia treatment, Golden-Vest received 47 infusions -- 18 units of blood and 29 units of platelets. She encourages Airmen to donate blood regularly because it literally saved her life.

In order to be considered in remission, her cancer blast cells have to stay below 5 percent, so Golden-Vest was officially in remission starting in December 2008. She still has a 60 percent chance of the cancer recurring, but Golden-Vest said she is enjoying the present and not worrying about the unknown. She now serves as the 445th Airlift Wing and 434th Air Refueling Wing Yellow Ribbon program representative.

"Surviving cancer hasn't slowed me down at all,” she said. “A lot of people thought that I would work less and slow-down in life. If anything, the opposite has happened. Every day is a new day and I'm excited to be here."