Shortly before kickoff of the Oct. 9 game between the Denver Broncos and the Atlanta Falcons, three members of Team Thunderstorm dropped from the sky, parachuting toward Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The sellout crowd watched as the skydivers descended from thousands of feet and landed safely on the playing field.
Perched in an upper-level stadium seat, Carmen Washington saw the high-altitude drama unfold. Although she’s in the U.S. Air Force, Washington spends her days on the ground. But she was at the game in large part because not long ago, she’d taken her own plunge. Like the parachuters who floated from the blue sky this day, Washington had landed safely after a long fall.
Washington, 27, is a breast cancer survivor. Fifteen months after her diagnosis, she is cancer-free and her life is on a decidedly upward trajectory after receiving care at UCHealth’s Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs. A nine-year Air Force veteran, she recently received a job promotion and will earn her Bachelor of Arts degree from American Military University in November. She plans next spring to meet a long-held goal of taking three-year-old daughter Jasmine Skye to Disney World. Work toward a master’s degree is also on the horizon.
She still has challenges in front of her, including completing breast reconstruction after a bilateral mastectomy. But Washington focuses on the positive.
“Looking back at it, I’ve been through a lot. But I’m still here, and I’m cancer-free,” she said.
Mile High salute
At halftime, Washington was on the field with some 125 others as part of the Broncos’ “Salute to Survivors” – individuals who have fought back against cancer. The survivors stood in formation on the field, waving and rhythmically shaking pink pom-poms as the large crowd looked on and cheered loudly. The ceremony also included special video features on the Jumbotron highlighting the personal battles of three of the survivors.
Washington also attended as one of five patients that UCHealth – the exclusive health care partner of the Broncos – selected for its “Moments to Shine” program, which gives patients, their families, and others who are dealing with illness and treatment a chance to step away and spend some time building their spirits with things they enjoy doing.
In addition to the halftime ceremony, the day featured practice for the halftime show on the field with Denver Broncos cheerleaders, a special champagne brunch in a club-level banquet room, and seats for the game. Washington’s sister Anna, 15, flew in from Chicago to join her as her guest.
“I felt famous,” Washington said the next day.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but the Broncos decided this year for the first time to expand their recognition to people with all kinds of cancer, said Cindy Kellogg, vice president of community development for the team.
“There is a lot of power in this room,” Kellogg said during the brunch. “I feel like we are only scratching the surface of what we will be able to do to recognize cancer survivors.”
Washington, who spent much of the brunch chatting with other survivors, agreed. “Cancer is cancer,” she said. “We’ve had the same kind of experiences from our treatment to our physical and emotional recovery. It was good to know that I am not the only one feeling like I did after the things I went through.”
Her breast cancer diagnosis came as a shock, not only because of her age but because she knows of no family history of the disease. She discovered it in July 2015 after getting out of the shower and noticing an “indentation” on the right side of her right breast.
“It didn’t look right,” Washington said. “I decided to get it checked out.”
That turned out to be a very good decision. A biopsy revealed a large cancerous nodule caused by a mutation of the HER2 gene.
“I cried,” Washington said. “I didn’t understand how or why this could have happened to me.” But when she thought about Jasmine, she steeled herself. “I said, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s get aggressive treatment.’ I wanted to see my daughter grow. She’s the most important person in my life.”
A month after the diagnosis, Washington began six rounds of chemotherapy at Memorial Hospital. With three weeks to recover in between rounds, she finished her treatments the day before Thanksgiving, ringing a bell in the infusion center to signal and celebrate the occasion as staff cheered.
“The team from Memorial took care of me and worked together,” she said. “Appointments were like seeing my family. I felt good going in there. For that I will be forever grateful.”
The chemotherapy grind cost Washington her hair and most of her energy. She took time off from her job at Schriever Air Force Base near Colorado Springs, and took naps whenever she could to recharge her batteries enough to keep up with Jasmine. In mid-December she had a double mastectomy to head off her aggressive cancer. Then she went ahead with five-day-a-week radiation treatments for five weeks.
“I wanted an extra layer of protection,” Washington said. “Ten years down the road I want to be able to say I did everything I could. If it were to come back we’ll fight again.” She will also take Tamoxifen, which blocks the ability of estrogen to fuel the growth of breast cancer cells, once a day for five years. She plans to complete the final phase of her breast reconstruction in February next year.
Ready to rise
After eight months off to fight her cancer, Washington returned to work in April. She studied and tested for a promotion, which she earned in August. Losing weight is also on her list of to-dos, but she even views weight gain in a positive light.
“I was happy to gain some weight,” she said. “It gave me energy to fight.”
So did her faith. “God was there for me,” Washington said. “Reading the Bible and going to church helped me to stay connected.”
That connection was evident at the champagne brunch as Carmen and Anna bowed their heads in a brief prayer before eating. Carmen is grateful for the spiritual and human support she’s received during her trial, but she is also quick to point out that she helped herself by paying attention to her own body – and urges other women to do so.
“At the end of the day, cancer doesn’t discriminate,” she said. “Do your breast checks and self-exams once a week. Don’t wait for your annual check-up. Put it on your calendar or your cell phone as a reminder. I’ve had a crazy ride and my positive attitude helped me. But I don’t want other women to go through it if they don’t have to.”