By Airman 1st Class Ashley J. Thum, 51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published November 03, 2013
OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- It's February 2012, and Katie Hampton, Osan Middle School special education teacher, is leading a normal life - as normal as it can be with two teenagers and an infant.
She stays busy balancing work and caring for her family of five, oblivious to the fast approach of the day that will change her life forever.
"Nine months after she (her daughter, Abigale, 2) was born I started feeling some tension on my side," Hampton said. "I thought it was just some soreness from carrying the baby around, but then I noticed a lump and I knew immediately that something wasn't normal."
Hampton would soon be diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer, a rare form of cancer that isn't caused by hormones and is difficult to treat.
Master Sgt. Mike Rawlins, Hampton's partner and 7th Air Force fuels war planner, remembered the flurry of activity the couple soon found themselves in.
"When I first found out, it was very emotional and scary," Rawlins said. "Those first couple weeks it was a whirlwind with all of the examinations, but the kids still had their sports and activities going on, and Abigale was still in daycare, so luckily we had that to occupy a lot of our time."
Their older children, Andrew, 17, and Erin, 16, were just as shocked as their parents.
"It's the kind of thing that's supposed to happen to other people, not to you and your family," Andrew said. "It was difficult to wrap my head around what was actually happening."
After weighing their options, Hampton and Rawlins decided that Hampton would leave Korea and take their daughter, Abigale, and undergo treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
"My aunt got some contacts for me at Mass General," Hampton said. "It was tough to get a leave of absence as quick as I did, but my principal was very supportive and my colleagues were amazing."
Hampton was able to stay with different members of her family, including her aunt, Rev. Nell Fields, for the duration of her treatment, which involved a double mastectomy, reconstructive surgery, six months of chemotherapy and 12 weeks of radiation Monday through Friday.
Since Rawlins, Andrew and Erin were still living at Osan, the family made every effort to keep in touch.
"It was very surprising to see how well she was doing, and how upbeat and spirited she was," Rawlins said about Hampton's demeanor during one of his visits.
Erin encourages other families who find themselves in a similar situation to do the same.
"Stay connected and keep talking," Erin said. "Support them the whole way through."
Hampton's treatment ended Dec. 21, giving her just enough time to take a flight home the very next day and spend the holidays with her family.
"The cool part, too, is that my oncologist in Boston actually works with an oncologist here in Korea at Samsung Hospital, so he got me completely hooked up with their breast cancer department," Hampton said. "I went for my first whole-body scan that checks for any hot spots in April and everything was clear. That was a very proud moment."
Andrew said this experience has made the family part of something bigger than themselves.
"When she (Hampton) was gone, it felt like the glue that holds our family together was missing," Andrew said. "Now things are back the way they should be, and honestly things have never been better."
Now one year cancer-free, Hampton said the struggle isn't completely over - she still has to have regular check-ups to monitor her remission, and will continue to take medication for the next 10 years.
"Every day is Breast Cancer Awareness Day for me," Hampton said. "If I only thought about it one month a year, I probably wouldn't be here right now. If I had a voice loud enough to say it to the world, I would say when something feels or looks wrong, you need to get it checked, because it could be life or death."
When asked what her advice to others who have been diagnosed with breast cancer would be, she said finding an outlet is the best place to start.
"Vent," Hampton emphasized. "Let it out. You are angry, and you are scared, and it's important that you have some support."
Hampton credits her victory over breast cancer to the constant support and love from her family and friends, both here and in the U.S.
"In any fight, you need to see that motivation in your corner," Hampton said. "My family, my job and my colleagues were just that - they were my rock, my fighting grace. I will always remember that and love them for that."