'Cancer saved my life': A Soldier's journey toward recovery

Army.mil
September 17, 2019 - 11:59 am
Capt. Lori Templeton

(Photo Credit: Courtesy photo from Capt. Lori Templeton)

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By Devon L. Suits, Army News Service

WASHINGTON -- People often look at Capt. Lori Templeton weird when she shares how cancer saved her life. With more than 4,000 people in the United States being diagnosed with cancer every day, it is hard for them to equate how this life-changing disease could save anyone.

As a single mother, former educator, and Army officer currently serving as the commander of 340th Brigade Support Battalion Headquarters Service Company/1st detachment with the California National Guard, Templeton chose to look beyond her ailment, she said. In the end, being diagnosed with stage three cancer in 2016, Templeton said she was forced to step back and find the balance that she so desperately needed in life.

DETERMINED TO SERVE

Starting at a young age, Templeton maintained an enduring passion for service, she said. At 17 years old, she was determined to join the Air Force, but got scared. She walked away days before her final military entrance processing station evaluation.

She always regretted not taking those first steps toward military service. She eventually got married and gave birth, but her commitment to service never waivered, she said.

She went on to help her kids as a stay-at-home mom, she said. After her divorce, she raised three kids on her own, all while working a full-time job and taking evening college classes. For many years, she served as a junior high school teacher and dedicated additional hours to assist at-risk youth, she added.

Successful in her own right, her desire to serve in the military never diminished, she said.

"At the time, I never wanted to sign a paper that indicated where my kids go, in the event that something happened to me," she explained.

It took 39 years for Templeton to obtain a second chance. With two kids out of the house and one finishing up high school, she submitted her commissioning paperwork to join the National Guard. She went to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for basic training. She then went to Fort Benning, Georgia, for officer candidate school, and back to Fort Jackson for the basic officer leader's course.

"I had some amazing experiences [during training]. I had worked my way up to this level of maturity, confidence, and achievement before I [joined the Army,]" she said. "As a single mom, I dug myself out of poverty and put myself through school. I am a domestic violence survivor -- my ex-husband was abusive."

OCS was one of the hardest things Templeton has ever completed, she said. During training, she was able to recall her complicated past, which allowed her to put things into perspective and made the experience more comfortable. She returned to California a changed woman.

"I was proud of the uniform I wore. The military provided a sense of family that went beyond my organic family," she said. "I was more outwardly focused, and definitely more driven."

Upon her return, she worked at the Oakland Military Institute as a training, assessment, counseling officer.

TOO BUSY FOR CANCER

It was 2016, and Templeton's Army and civilian careers were in full swing. As a first lieutenant, she was selected to command the 349th Quartermaster Company, which had just come back from a long and challenging deployment.

"I was going at that 150 miles an hour," she said. "I spent two hours in the gym every day. I was hard-charging when it came to running the company. I [also] had another full-time job, so I was working probably 60-plus hours a week, trying to be everything."

Through all the controlled chaos, Templeton found success, or so she thought, she said. At the time, she was in the best shape of her life. The company continued to excel and was growing closer as a family.

Nevertheless, sustaining this level of performance started to take a toll, which forced her to make sacrifices, she said.

"I let my family kind of go," she said sadly. "I was so focused on [my Army career,] and I didn't realize that it was happening."

Templeton then stopped taking care of her body, which included making annual breast cancer screening appointments, she said.

"I didn't get a mammogram for two years," she said. "I knew I had a lump. In my head, I didn't have time for it -- I didn't have time to get sick. I was so focused on everyone else that I didn't take care of me."

Templeton's longtime friend recognized that she was delinquent on her annual breast exams. She called the busy lieutenant every month, for six months straight, and insisted that she get checked out.

"I would get angry at her," Templeton shared. "Sometimes I wouldn't answer her phone calls. Or I would say, 'fine,' to get her to leave me alone.

"She persisted to the point where I finally said, 'I'll go get it checked just to get you to shut up."

Templeton finally made it in for her mammogram. After the initial exam, doctors moved her immediately to another room for additional testing.

"The technician came back into the room, and he had this sober look," she said. "I was already irritated. In my mind, I took time out of my busy day to deal with this. I was so far removed from reality."

The technician explained that they found a mass and wanted to perform a biopsy. She assumed it was the scar tissue from a breast augmentation surgery she had 10 years prior. In her mind, this whole doctor's visit was a colossal waste of her valuable time, she explained.

Stubborn in her own right, she said that she didn't have time for the test and was ready to walk out the door. Recognizing that she might not return, the doctor's office shifted around their busy scheduled to get her the biopsy.

"I had let myself go. I chose not to think about [the lump in my breast] because it wasn't going to be on my radar. I've gone through a lot of hard times, and I finally was in a place in life where I felt successful," she said.

"I didn't see how I was really just killing myself," she added.

Days later, Templeton had already re-engaged into her busy routine. Then, on April 7, 2016, her phone rang. It was her physician requesting her to come in.

"I drove [to the doctors] very frustrated," she said. "In my mind, they were wasting my time, so I can come down and review a piece of paper."

She was entrenched in a phone call with her command sergeant major as she walked in the waiting room, she said. Determined to finish her conversation, she told the doctor to wait.

"What caught my attention is when she said, 'Go ahead and finish your call,'" Templeton said.

The two of them went back to the exam room as Templeton finished the call. As she hung up her phone, she gave her doctor a thumbs up, as if to say, "'I'm sure everything is satisfactory, right?'"

"She just looked at me and tears started coming down her face when she said, 'No, you have cancer,'" Templeton said.

Derailed, Templeton's mind went numb. The doctor explained that she had stage three lymphoma and needed to go in for surgery as soon as possible. Then reality set it. Templeton came alone to the doctor's office and was about an hour away from home. She resorted to humor to cope with the alarming news.

Jokingly, she asked the doctor, "So, I'm just going to take me and my cancer, get in the elevator and just go home?" The doctor acknowledged and passed along the contact information for a highly-recommended surgical oncologist.

Keeping her composure, the hard-charging lieutenant walked out of the office and got into her car. As she closed her car door, she immediately broke down, sobbing.

After she gained back some composure, she called her first sergeant and laid everything on the table.

"In his great first sergeant wisdom, he gave me the compassion I needed. He also asked me where I was and if I could drive," she said.

Up until that point, "I've handled everything else that I've come up against, and sitting in the car crying wasn't going to do anything for me," she said. "This was just like anything else that I had tackled in my life. For him to have that strength and confidence in me, he gave me my strength and confidence back."

Templeton returned home and immediately started calling the surgeon's office. Two days later, she was meeting the oncologist for her first consultation.

The next day, she went through her drill weekend as if nothing happened. She did, however, share her prognosis with a key group of friends, she said. In her mind, she wasn't going to allow "this invader" to control any aspect of her life.

She later met her commander, who had no choice but to pull the lieutenant out of her leadership position.

"At that time I saw it as an attack," Templeton shared. "My command became everything I was. I was going to try to act like nothing was happening, instead of dealing with it in a healthy way."

"In her maturity and care for me, my commander saw the big picture," she added. "She knew I would never have been able to recover if I stayed in that position. It was hard for me at the time, because I didn't see it that way."

STANDING UP TO CANCER

Templeton waited as long as she could before sharing her diagnosis with her family, she said.

"I couldn't tell them because I knew how it would disrupt their lives and I didn't want to do that," she said. "They rallied around me like nobody's business. I never went to one appointment alone [and] they lived four to five hours away. It was humbling, and I was honored because I didn't think I deserved the call to action that I got."

Leading up to her first surgery, Templeton when through a flurry of testing and administrative processes. In the end, the hardest part was meeting with her kids before the treatment that would take most of her breast and several lymph nodes, she said.

"I had to give them my will and my insurance information," she said, as her voice quivered with sadness. "If I did not come out of surgery or the treatment didn't work … I shared what I wanted them to be [in life]."

For the first time, Templeton realized how important it was to cherish life. Ultimately, "every moment is a gift," she said, and she was thankful for every gift she had received thus far.

About a month after her surgery, she started her six-month regimen of chemotherapy treatments. Through it all, she stayed positive and strived to stay connected to her Soldier family. After the six months of treatment, neuropathy set in, causing her to lose feeling in her hands and feet.

Templeton remained resilient, wanting nothing more than to get back to the life she once had, she said. After a month of radiation treatment and final reconstructive surgery, she was cleared and put on her uniform once again.

It took her more than a year to defeat cancer. As a survivor, she wrapped her motorcycle with a breast cancer awareness ribbon. It is her way to remind other women to get tested annually, she said.

"Cancer saved my life," she said. "It forced me to stop. Now, I get to recreate myself."

After treatment, Templeton returned as the deputy commander of the Soldiers Incentive Assistance Center, working with the National Guard Bureau and the California Guard to refund recouped bonus money for Soldiers. She later stepped away from this position and started working as a liaison officer for "Work for Warriors," a state and federally funded nonprofit that helps veterans and transitioning members find employment. As an Army captain, she is now 18 months into her second command.

"I absolutely love it, but I'm a different leader now," she said. "I lead with my heart. I still go 150 miles an hour at times, but I am more balanced these days."

In the end, cancer taught her the importance of family, she said. Closer to her kid than ever before, she remains eternally grateful that her family stopped everything in their lives, just to give her some time to rebuild and continue to live.

"Accepting love from others and admitting that you need help was the hardest thing for me to do by far," she said. As Soldiers, "We are all strong, but are we strong enough to let people in [during times of need.]"

"Letting people in is the scariest thing out there. It can be scarier than cancer," she said. "[Soldiers] don't have to fight alone -- they don't have to rub dirt [on their ailment] and move on. It is okay to get help."

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