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Air Force Chief’s Resilience Conquers Breast Cancer

Chief Master Sgt. Yolanda Jennings works on a project with Senior Airman Jameka Ruta, Oct. 14, 2015. Jennings is a breast cancer survivor. (Photo: Melanie Rodgers Cox)
Chief Master Sgt. Yolanda Jennings works on a project with Senior Airman Jameka Ruta, Oct. 14, 2015. Jennings is a breast cancer survivor. (Photo: Melanie Rodgers Cox)

FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Chief Master Sgt. Yolanda Jennings recalled that when doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer in September 2008 she was not surprised, but she was scared.

“No one wants to hear that,” said Jennings, who now works at Air University on Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.

At age 37, she was below the at-risk age for cancer, but when she suspected she might have the disease after a self-diagnosis, her friends told her it was probably something else. “I kind of knew,” she said.

Jennings, whose mother had died of multiple myeloma four years earlier, was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer — a rare and often aggressive form of breast cancer which tends to occur in younger women and African-American women, according to the Susan G. Komen organization.

“It hits a lot of minorities,” Jennings said, “and they don’t survive.”

The worst part for Jennings, she said, was the uncertainty about the future and the idea that she would never see her children.

Fortunately, her doctors caught the cancer early. She started her first round of chemotherapy on Halloween and benefitted from an accelerated program. She then went through 30 rounds of radiation, and completed her entire treatment by April 2009.

Through it all, she said she had the support of her family and also from her co-workers at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, who supported her as she went in every day.

“I wanted to come to work,” Jennings said, adding that work made her feel better. “I did not want to be ‘oh woe-is-me’ about it.”

However, her Thursday chemotherapy treatments would hit her hard the next day around 2 p.m., she said. Yet she did not miss any work once her chemotherapy port was placed.

“I would tough it out until three on Fridays,” she said. “I even did PT.”

Her oncologist was so impressed, she said, with her condition, he told her, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”

Her wing commander was especially supportive. When her hair fell out and she had to wear an uncomfortable wig that itched, he told her to do whatever was comfortable, she said, adding that she took it off revealing her bald head.

Jennings’ treatments did not limit her career either, she said. When she learned of an open position with the secretary of the Air Force, she wanted to apply. Even though her chemotherapy had ended, she was still receiving radiation treatments. Her wing commander told her that he would put her in for it. She flew to Washington, D.C., and interviewed with then-Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley. She said she wore her wig, but Donley, whose wife was an oncological nurse, told her if she was uncomfortable to take it off. She did.

“It was a great interview,” said Jennings, who eventually landed the job.

Now a cancer survivor of seven years, Jennings encourages others.

“If there’s something you want to do, do it, because you are not promised tomorrow,” she said.

She took her own advice when her job with Donley ended and she took a job on Air Force One. “I flew around the world with the president,” she said.

And when she realized there were not many African-American female chiefs in the Air Force, she studied for it and achieved the rank of chief master sergeant.

“I did what I needed to do,” she said, “and now I’m at Maxwell (AFB) at an amazing job.”

Her advice to women who suspect they might have breast cancer is to get checked. And if someone is diagnosed with breast cancer, she encourages them: “Don’t give up … fight through it whatever it is.”

Jennings appreciates how the Air Force helped her through her diagnosis and treatment.

“The Air Force is not looking to put you out because you’re sick, they’re doing it to make sure you’re fit,” she said of the morale and health care support she received. “I give them 110 percent.”

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