Survivor and U.S. Veteran: I Did What I Had to Do to Fight the Fight

This year, Susan G. Komen’s® Colorado Race for the Cure will honor all of our heroes, including local veterans and active-duty military members. Julie Whitney is a United States Air Force veteran and a breast cancer survivor. Whitney hopes her story will educate other women about knowing their bodies and inspire others to support Komen Colorado’s mission to save lives by meeting the most critical needs in our community.

Julie Whitney, 57, of Westminster, said she has always lived a healthy lifestyle. Completing several marathons, Whitney has strived to eat relatively healthy foods and drink little alcohol. Her time as a security police investigator in the United States Air Force, during the early ‘80s, also kept her fit.

“My benign vices were the occasional cookie and Diet Coke,” Whitney said.

So Whitney was shocked when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, in 2005, at the age of 44. By now, Whitney was working as a Registered Nurse.

“I was in disbelief when I found the lump by self-exam turned out to be Invasive Lobular Carcinoma,” she said.

Whitney’s breast cancer had begun in the milk-producing glands, but it had broken out of the gland. This meant it could have spread to other parts of the body. The cancer was stage 1, but the tumor was grade 2.

“I guess I was a little angry and didn’t feel like I had deserved it or had time for this invasion in my life,” she said.

Whitney’s mom also had breast cancer, but testing determined Whitney’s cancer was not related to a genetic mutation. In fact, most breast cancers are not caused by genetic factors. Only about 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers in the U.S. are related to an inherited gene mutation.

Whitney soon let go of the anger, and she said she quickly learned cancer doesn’t discriminate.

“I did what I had to do to fight the fight,” she said.

Women in the military face a higher risk of breast cancer than other women. A 2009 Walter Reed Army Medical Center study found white women in the armed forces have a 19 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer, and African American military women are at an even greater risk at 37 percent.

The Walter Reed study reported women who serve in the armed forces are 20 to 40 percent more likely to get breast cancer than other women in the same age groups.

Currently, the U.S. government is only able to track who develops breast cancer while they are in the military. While the Veterans Administration tracks breast cancer cases, veterans who get breast cancer and do not use the VA go uncounted.

Researchers cite industrial jobs, exposure to chemicals, and a higher use of oral contraception as possible reasons for the increased risk. Whitney did not develop breast cancer during her service time, and it is difficult to say whether her military career played a role in her diagnosis.

After a bilateral mastectomy and chemotherapy, Whitney is doing well today. And she wants others to be well, too. She encourages women to take care of themselves and know their bodies.

She added that Melissa Etheridge’s song “I Run for Life” is her mantra.

“When I hear that song at the starting line of Race for the Cure, I know I am running for my life and every other Survivor (and co-survivor) out there,” she said. “I will run Race for the Cure until breast cancer is eradicated or my legs will no longer carry me!”