U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Melissa Youderian donated her long hair to Locks of Love, a nonprofit for children suffering hair loss, after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
“Though it was a deliberate decision and I thought it would be uplifting to donate my hair before the treatment took it, I had tears running down my face the entire haircut,” she said. “It was one of those ‘this is actually happening’ moments.”
Youderian is a wife, a mother and an Air Force colonel. She’s a former enlisted Army reservist who calls Montana home and commands the U.S. Air Force Academy Preparatory School. She hikes often with her dog and friends, enjoys reading and tending her garden. Her diagnosis came in April after she suffered stomach pain for a series of months.
“At first, I was analytical,” she said. “I just wanted to know what I needed to do to beat it. I was determined to minimize cancer’s effect on my life.”
After a surgery following her springtime diagnosis, Youderian’s physician told her the cancer had spread.
“Instead of laparoscopic surgery with three small holes in my stomach, I woke up with 25 staples from the ‘de-bulking surgery’ – a nice way of describing a doctor cutting out all the cancer they can find,” she said. A laparoscopy is minimally invasive surgery allowing physicians to access a patient’s stomach and pelvis without large incisions.
Complicating the colonel’s battle with cancer is her inheritance of the BRCA1 – breast cancer gene. Similar to BRCA2 – also a breast cancer gene, patients inheriting harmful variants in one of these genes have increased risks of cancer, notably breast and ovarian cancer. Patients inheriting a harmful variant in BRCA1 and BRCA2 tend to develop cancer at younger ages than those without the variant, according to the National Cancer Institute.
“If I had known about my increased risk due to the BRCA-1 mutation, I would have been more aggressive in exploring options to reduce my risk,” she said. “I would have seen a doctor sooner than when I started having pain.”
The American Cancer Society reports more than 21,400 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and more than 13,700 women will die from the disease, by years’ end.
“Ovarian cancer is called the ‘cancer that whispers’ because the symptoms - abdominal pressure, bloating and nausea – are vague,” Youderian said. “Some women go years without being diagnosed because there are no good screening tools, which is why many women are not diagnosed until stage three or four.”
Youderian continues to hike, enjoy coffee, video chats with friends and family time.
“We’ve tried to maintain some normalcy without putting me at risk since I’m immunocompromised,” she said.
Youderian’s family talks openly about her diagnosis and her husband, Bill Yaeger, is a colon cancer survivor.
“That helps us deal with it,” she said. “They’ve been very good about asking me what I need versus telling me what they think I need.”
Youderian’s son, Colton Yaeger, learned ovarian cancer affects 1.2% of women and the survival and recurrence rates “are not that optimistic for my stage.”
“He asked, ‘why me,’” she said. “I had to take a few deep breaths before I could answer.”
The colonel said she is doing well but sometimes feels as if she has suffered a “mental gut punch. When her treatment allows, Youderian reports for duty.
“We have such a great mission at the prep school. Interacting with prep school staff and cadet candidates is a huge mental boost,” she said. “I didn’t want to check out completely, but it’s easy to be pulled back into the mission and use up your energy. I talked to my boss after my first treatment and was excited to let him know I had been back to work.”
Youderian’s boss, Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, responded by capping her work time.
“That was a mentoring moment I needed,” she said. “It took away the guilt I felt for not being all-in at my job. The amazing people in my unit have the mission and keep an eye on me to make sure I don’t overdo it. Their encouragement reminds me it’s ‘OK to not be OK’ and to focus on getting well.”
Husky Strong: ‘More than Just a Motto’
Youderian said the prep school’s Husky Strong Program, named after the unit’s mascot, promotes resiliency among staff and preppies.
“Husky Strong is not just about me and that’s what I love about it,” she said. “It reminds all of us of the resources and helping agencies we have to get us through tough times. On the days when the side effects of treatment hit me hard, no matter how weak I feel, I’m still Husky Strong. I’ve been through tough times, the staff and preppies have been through tough times. Being Husky Strong doesn’t mean we avoid the struggle, it means we face it by helping one another.”
Prep school Cadet Candidate Solomon Jones said Husky Strong is more than “just a motto.”
“It represents specialized and unique individuals with different backgrounds, ways of life and culture,” he said. “The program encourages us to share our stories, talents and challenges.”
Jones, 19, from Long Beach, California, said his family’s battle with cancer spans generations. His fraternal grandmother died of liver cancer before he was born - “I never had the chance to talk to her or see what she looks like with the exception of pictures” – and his maternal aunt’s battle with breast cancer is in remission.
“Most of my family on both sides passed away from cancer so it’s a serious and emotional topic for me,” he said. “It affected my relationships with those family members. I never got the chance to sit and talk with them, hug them or show them I’m doing great things. We’re all affected by cancer so we must support and aid those affected by it, whether they’re our Air Force or personal family.”
Jones said Husky Strong reminds him that he’s not the only preppie who has struggled.
“The program makes us feel and act as if we are one,” he said. “We are a family.”
September was Ovarian Cancer Awareness month and October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Regardless of any form the disease may take, Youderian advocates for awareness, regular checkups and genetic screening.
According to the American Cancer Society, ovarian cancer ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women and accounts for more deaths than any other risk to the female reproductive system. A woman’s risk of ovarian cancer during her lifetime is about 1 in 78 and her chance of dying from the disease hovers around 1 in 108.
Jones is optimistic about Youderian’s ability to combat cancer.
“Colonel Youderian is strong, resilient and inspiring,” he said. “She makes appearances at the prep school to make sure we are doing well and stay motivated. We’re lucky to have her as our commander.”
Youderian appreciates the well wishes from Jones, the preppies and her staff.
“As far as my prep school and Air Force family? Their words of encouragement and acts of kindness are humbling and keep me motivated to get through this and get back to work full time,” she said.
What would Youderian say to another woman donating her hair with tears running down her face after learning she has a life-threatening disease?
“Brace for a roller coaster of emotions,” she said. “I thought preemptively cutting off the majority of my hair would better prepare me for hair loss and be an uplifting event because it was for a good cause, but it was emotionally jarring and a wake-up call for what I was facing. By the time I got home that day I felt good about doing it, but I was definitely caught off guard by the initial onslaught of emotion.”