On Thursday morning, Sept. 22, 2016, Theresa Lukens was driving to base to meet with a friend before her son left for a football game. Before entering the gate, she received a call.
“Over my speakerphone the radiologist said, ‘The news is not good,’” said Lukens. “‘Your tests came back and you have cancer.’ As emotions took over, I pulled my vehicle to the side and started crying. Everything began to go gray and swirl.”
Lukens was diagnosed with stage 2A breast cancer.
Lukens, better known as Terri, worked as a Women, Infants, and Children administrative assistant at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. She usually spent her work day ensuring women got the food, nutrition counseling, and health services they needed in order to provide for themselves and their families. However, the diagnosis she received three years ago changed her life and gave her the knowledge and experience to help women in another way.
After hearing the diagnosis, Terri said she felt shocked, afraid, sad, and lonely. She drove to her husband’s work, retired Chief Master Sgt. Richard “Jason” Lukens, and broke down in tears.
“I was visibly upset and could barely speak,” said Terri.
This was not the first time Terri received an unfortunate call involving breast cancer. Nearly 25 years ago, she found out her mother was diagnosed.
“My mother hid her cancer,” said Terri. “My Aunt Gail finally figured out what she was doing. She was wrapping herself in bandages to hide the fact that her cancer had metastasized to outside of the skin. My aunt forced her to go to the doctor who had her taken by ambulance for immediate surgery. I received a call with this information and remember running outside and dropping to my knees, crying and asking God why he would do this.”
Her mother passed away a short time later and now the thought of dying crossed her mind.
“Jason was awesome and wouldn’t let me think like that,” said Terri. “He said, ‘No, we are going to fight this and we will beat it together.’ He was never negative and knew we would win.”
Jason comforted her as he called the hospital to learn more about the diagnosis, and to schedule her follow-up appointment.
They both waited until their son Gage came back from his football game to deliver the news.
“The hardest thing about this whole diagnosis was telling Gage,” said Terri. “It was thinking about him that I decided, then and there, that I would always remain positive and fight. Giving up was not an option. So, we began our journey into the unknown.”
A few weeks later, Terri started her treatment.
When most people were barely arriving to work with their morning cup of coffee, Terri already had blood taken at the lab, breakfast with her husband at the cafeteria, and was waiting in the chemo-infusion room for her “chemo cocktail” during their weekly four-hour visit to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.
However, the cocktail didn’t come in a garnished martini glass. It was actually chemotherapy, a treatment made with cancer-killing drugs that travel through the bloodstream to reach cancer cells. It was mixed specifically for Terri according to her body, overall health, and the type and stage of her cancer. It was prepared by an oncology nurse, served in an IV bag, and administered through an embedded port in Terri’s chest. It also came with a slew of adverse reactions and side effects.
“On the second and third day after treatment I would start going downhill,” said Terri. “I experienced joint pain, nausea, stomach issues and acid reflux.”
Chemo had other effects on her body including hair loss, nail discoloration, weight fluctuations, mood changes, and easier susceptibility to infections and illnesses.
After finishing chemo, Terri endured even more challenges with 10 weeks of radiation, which had similar side effects including fatigue, skin problems, loss of appetite, hair loss and decreased blood cell count.
Through it all, Terri and her family remained in high spirits and continued to push forward.
“I had it, and that was that,” she said. “So, we dealt with it the best way we knew how, to not give up and to fight.”
Terri and her family did just that, and they won.
Since being diagnosed and treated, Terri is cancer-free. Her nail color and hair has returned to normal. She said a positive attitude, a purpose to live, and having her family and military network backing her up in the fight against cancer aided her in the battle to overcome the disease. She said her biggest supporters were Jason and Gage, and she was grateful for the Spangdahlem community who were there during her times of need.
“The support here at Spangdahlem has been awe-inspiring,” said Terri. “The support covered every angle including meal trains, shaving of heads to recognize the disease, Relay for Life fundraising, and more.”
Terri became a voice for cancer awareness and someone to help support those diagnosed or going through treatment in the community. She regularly attended and even spoke at the yearly base Relay for Life, an event to celebrate the people who have battled cancer, remember loved ones lost, and fight back against the disease.
She also helps those outside of the Spangdahlem community. Deanna Morris, a spouse diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2017 at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, met Terri through mutual friends on social media.
“Terri reached out to me at a time where I was lost and scared,” said Morris. “I had no idea what to expect or what exactly I was facing. Terri was an angel who talked to me when I was at my lowest. She understood exactly what I was feeling, physically and emotionally. She was an angel in disguise. She truly helped me.”
Terri said she has shared advice to many individuals who have reached out to her after their diagnosis or during their struggle with the disease.
“With all the people I’ve been able to help, I feel like it was meant to be,” said Terri.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breast cancer in the U.S. is the most common cancer in women, aside from some types of skin cancer. It also states 12 percent of women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime.
Terri said she wants women to be conscientious of their bodies and catch cancer early. If they find a lump, get it looked at by a doctor immediately.
“Just go get it checked,” said Terri. “The earlier you get it checked, the earlier you find it, the higher your survival rate. Just do it.”
Terri said she understands finding something abnormal can be frightening, but urges them to be strong.
“You can’t hide behind the fear,” said Terri. “My mother did that. Don’t let fear cripple you.”
She also said newly treated patient’s bodies will change, but many symptoms are not permanent.
“Hair, eyelashes, eyebrows, weight gain, weight loss and nails will all come back,” Terri said. “They are just a temporary loss. Cancer can change your appearance, but not who you are on the inside.”
Jason said his advice to supporters of those who carry the disease is to understand that nothing can change the diagnosis, but the attitude you have going forward is crucial.
“You have to remain positive and believe that they can beat it,” said Jason. “Terri and I always kept ourselves positive, even on bad days when she was tired, or when she started losing her hair. I just tried to be there for her when she needed me. A positive attitude goes a long way for the entire family.”
Terri suggests buying a nice, comfortable hat and to not let cancer control every aspect of their life.
“You can take charge of certain things like shaving your own hair before it all falls out or not wearing the wig if you don’t want to,” Terri said. “Do whatever makes you happy, not what society or cancer dictates.”
Although Terri and her family recently left Spangdahlem after her husband’s retirement, she said she welcomes anyone, here or elsewhere, to reach out to her on social media if they have questions about cancer or are in need of support. She wants to continue to promote cancer awareness and assist those in their fight with the disease.
“God put me in this place with cancer and had me go through this for a reason” said Terri. “That reason is to help other people who are diagnosed. If I can help just one person in a positive way, I’m doing what God intended.”