QUANTICO, Va. - Sgt. Jennifer Suarez has looked death in the face and said, “I am not ready to go yet.”
Currently serving as the commanding officer’s driver at The Basic School, Marine Corps Base Quantico, she was medically retired as a corporal in 2007 due to brain cancer. After surgery, months of radiation and chemotherapy, and a lengthy convalescent period, she is back on active duty today, serving in a full-duty status.
A native of Springfield, Virginia, Suarez enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 17. At her second duty station, she said she was five months pregnant with her son when she started having muscle spasms on her left side. While out for breakfast with her husband on Mother’s Day, Suarez’s left hand and arm began spasming uncontrollably. Her husband, also a Marine, rushed her to the hospital at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, where she underwent a brain scan that revealed a mass in her brain.
It was after being transferred to Balboa Hospital that Suarez was told she had a brain tumor called an astrocytoma, and it was approximately the size of a golf ball. Because Suarez was pregnant, her treatment would need to be delayed, though doctors would deliver her son at eight months. Suarez was devastated, but she said she felt that she had to be strong for her husband, who had started crying when they received the news.
On July 5, 2006, the Suarezes’ son, Anthony, was delivered, and it became immediately clear that something was wrong. Doctors told them their son had heart and lung failure, and whisked him away to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Jennifer Suarez was in shock.
Reflecting on the moment, she said “I couldn’t believe what was happening. I asked, ‘Why was everything in my life falling apart? They told me he would be fine!’”
She said doctors told her their son should receive an emergency baptism because it was likely that he would not survive. Contrary to all expectations, however, Anthony began to thrive, and only 2 ½ weeks after his birth, he was released from the hospital.
Suarez’s brain surgery was scheduled for Sept. 25, 2006. Because the tumor was growing into her motor cortex, doctors were not able to remove all of it; Suarez said they were able to get about half of it. When she awoke from surgery, her left leg was paralyzed, though Suarez said her doctor thought it might be a temporary problem caused by swelling from the surgery, and she was given a walker. Suarez was released from the hospital after about five days.
Highly motivated to recover, she began to use her walker right away upon arriving home. Though at first only able to drag her left foot, she was walking on her own again by Thanksgiving 2006.
From January to March 2007, she had an hour of radiation therapy every day. After 1 ½ months, her hair began to fall out, and she asked her husband to shave her head. He was reluctant to do it, but she told him “It’s just hair, it’ll grow back.” She was not always able to maintain a strong façade, however. One day while she was shopping in the Camp Pendleton Exchange with her bald head in full view, someone approached her from behind and said “Excuse me, sir.” She became upset and angry and responded, “I’m not a sir, I’m a ma’am!”
Wanting to keep things on the lighter side whenever she could though, Suarez said, “Sometimes I would make jokes and play the cancer card. If I dropped my phone on the floor, I would say to my family ‘I dropped my phone, but I have brain cancer ... can you pick it up please?’” It was a line that was hard to refuse.
It was in April 2007 that Suarez started chemotherapy and began taking Temodar.
Suarez said, “They were horse pills” that left her feeling drained and nauseated, and many days she felt she could barely get out of bed. In one of her regular visits to Balboa, doctors told her she would need to go on the Temporary Disability Retired List for five years. This meant that she would have a “retired” identification card and only receive a monthly stipend, rather than full pay.
Suarez was angry and devastated.
“I joined at 17, and I thought the Marine Corps was going to be my career. I never thought this would happen,” she said. “I was angry at God. My favorite phrase was ‘Why me? Why is this happening to me?’”
She eventually began seeing a counselor who helped her deal with her emotions.
On June 1, 2007, Suarez was medically retired. Later in June, the family moved back to Virginia, since her husband had gotten orders there. Over the next few years, Suarez received an MRI every three months. The tumor had shrunk even more due to the radiation and chemotherapy, and while it was still there, it was at least stable.
Suarez said she started giving money to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, because she had survived, and she regularly saw young children at the two hospitals she went to who were very sick. The situation made her think of her own child, and she prayed for them all.
Suarez was pregnant with her second child when her husband walked out one day, saying he just could not deal with it all anymore. She moved back home with her parents for a while and then eventually into her own house in Lorton, Virginia. She also started working part-time at a bridal shop to supplement her retirement pay.
Toward the end of her five-year retirement, Suarez decided she wanted to come back on active duty. Her tumor was still stable, she was feeling healthy, and she missed the challenge of being a Marine. She took the paperwork to a recruiter and explained the situation. The paperwork and processing took months. She had to go to the Military Entrance Processing Station three times and obtain waivers for cancer, a behavioral health treatment history, hypothyroidism caused by the cancer treatment, and two injured knees from her first active duty period. She also had to pass a Physical Fitness Test and write a detailed letter on why she wanted to come back in the Marine Corps.
In March 2013, Suarez got her wish: she re-enlisted in Frederick, Maryland. After several phone calls to her career monitor, she was able to be assigned to TBS so she could stay in the area where her family and support system were located. She was promoted to sergeant in January 2014.
When asked why she wanted to come back in after all she had been through, Suarez said, “I know I wouldn’t be happy not wearing this uniform.”