When Davida Hill began experiencing pain in her left breast, she didn’t give it much thought. At that time, she was on her second deployment to Kuwait as a member of the U.S. Army Reserve. “I thought the pain was from the heavy body armor I had to wear,” she said.
When the pain worsened, the doctor sent her to a medical center in Landstuhl, Germany.
It was very cold, with snow and ice everywhere, when Davida arrived in Germany. The cab couldn’t make it up the hill to the hospital and she had to walk the half-mile, dragging her bags behind her.
At first she was diagnosed with an infection and prescribed antibiotics. “They weren’t thinking cancer because I was only 23 years old,” she said.
When her symptoms worsened, she was flown to Fort Gordon’s medical center in Augusta, Ga.
A team there put her through a battery of lab tests and scans and prescribed more antibiotics. “Again, because of my age, cancer was not on their radar,” she said.
Davida’s mother, Beverly Hill, of Lineville, rushed to her daughter’s side when the medical team decided to do a biopsy. “Three doctors, a nurse and my mom were crowded in this tiny room with me during the procedure,” she remembers.
Twelve hours later, the diagnosis was official. Davida had IBC: inflammatory breast cancer. It came as a surprise to everyone except Davida, who by that time had begun to suspect.
“I guess you could say I felt it in my spirit,” she said. “My immediate thought was, “OK, we know what it is, let’s get on with the treatment.’”
IBC is rare and aggressive. It may or may not show up on imaging. Davida’s did not. Symptoms mimic an infection and are often misdiagnosed as such. “When a woman starts noticing symptoms, she’s already at Stage 3,” Davida said. “I was diagnosed at Stage 3B.”
Davida’s treatment consisted of eight cycles of chemotherapy followed by surgery and 42 radiation treatments. “I knew I was fighting for my life,” she said. “Giving up was never an option.”
Since she was active duty military, all costs were covered. “I didn’t have any copays, all my meds were paid for, basically anything that I had to have for treatment,” she said. “The Army made sure I had the best care possible.”
Along the way, Davida’s boyfriend of more than two years faded from her life. “He wasn’t there for my surgery,” she said. “Nor did he come to visit any of the days I was in the hospital.”
Such emotional setbacks didn’t hamper her determination to beat cancer, a determination reinforced by her military discipline. “I was a soldier, which meant I wouldn’t bow down to any obstacle.”
But it was her faith that kept her strong. “God did not give me any indication I would die from breast cancer in my 20s, so I was not worried,” she said.
Even though she approached her situation with a tough attitude, she didn’t attempt to hold back tears when they came. “I would cry as long as I wanted, because I refused to let it build up inside me,” she said.
Due to its aggressive nature, IBC patients have a poor survival rate. “Typically, the cancer will come back in three to five years,” Davida said. “Even with great advances in treatment, less than 20 percent make it past 10 years.”
Davida celebrated 13 years cancer-free this past summer. “I lost my hair, a breast, a relationship, my appetite and physical strength, but I never lost my will to live,” she said. “I’m a survivor in every sense of the word.”
Today Davida is out of the military and working as a certified medical assistant with the department of orthopedic specialties at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. And she has advice for anyone facing a breast cancer diagnosis.
“It will be like trying to ride a bike with two flat tires up a steep mountain in the mud and pouring rain,” she said. “It’s going to be hard, you’re going to get tired and you’re going to feel defeated. But don’t give up. Keep pushing, because when you finally make it to the top, the view will be absolutely amazing.”
Donna Barton writes a column for the Sunday Life & Arts section. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.