Tomorrow is never promised.
We’ve all heard it, but do we believe it? U.S. Army Lieutenant General Karen Gibson may understand this more than most. Both a combat veteran and a breast cancer survivor, Gibson has faced her fair share of uncertain tomorrows, on and off the battlefield.
Gibson, ODNI’s Deputy Director of National Intelligence for National Security Partnerships, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 while gearing up for a combat deployment to Baghdad.
“I’d already been thinking about mortality… I was ready to commit myself fully to the war in Iraq,” Gibson said. “Instead I found myself in a battle I had not expected, hoping to wear a little pink ribbon labelled ‘Cancer Survivor’ instead of an Iraqi Campaign Medal.”
Her crisis started during a routine follow-up visit to the Fort Bragg, NC Radiology Clinic. She found herself in the waiting room listening to the names of other Soldiers being called for their appointments, but something was different when they called her name.
“In typical Fort Bragg fashion, the nursing staff barked out each name as patients were summoned for vitals. ‘Smith! Jones! Walters!’” Gibson said. “But the nurse’s voice softened when she looked up and said, “LTC Gibson? Please come with me,” putting an arm around my shoulder.”
Her life has not been the same since.
Walking out of the doctor’s office that day she felt like she had been hit in the face with a two-by-four. She could not believe she had cancer or that she must begin treatment immediately as the doctor advised.
Immediately was not exactly going to work for Gibson. She had other priorities – and at the top of the list was getting herself and her soldiers ready for the war they were about to enter.
Except Gibson was about to enter a more personal war she had not prepared for at all – cancer.
“The doctor wanted to schedule a biopsy but I told him I’d be unavailable until Friday because I was needed to brief some Hill staffers on the war effort,” she said. “He looked me straight in the eye and said soberly, ‘You’ve been taking care of the Army for a long time. Now you need to take care of yourself.’”
But Iraq is where Gibson wanted to be, not a doctor’s office. She could not stand the thought of her team going to war without her.
As Gibson and the doctor developed a treatment plan, she kept asking, “How soon can you get me to Baghdad?”
Unfortunately, for Gibson, Baghdad was not in the picture for her anytime soon.
Soldiers endure physical challenges while serving in the Army, but Gibson found cancer was more of a mental and emotional test despite five months of chemotherapy, a mastectomy, and 39 additional weeks of drug infusions. For her, the real challenge was finding a new purpose.
She felt useless to the Army. She felt she let her team down.
“I asked to be treated at Bethesda, at the time a Navy hospital, because I didn’t want to be around Soldiers at Walter Reed if I couldn’t be one myself,” Gibson said.
She joined a support group to help deal with this challenge, hoping they would sympathize with her struggles. But even fellow cancer patients did not understand what Gibson was facing.
“I joined a support group and was thrust for the first time into the world of my contemporaries, middle-aged women. ‘And now I can’t go to Baghdad,’ I’d moan as we went around the circle, sharing our concerns. ‘Oh, thank heavens!’ the others would sigh with relief. Nobody understood me,” she said.
At the toughest times, she relied on what the Army had instilled in her at a very young age – the Warrior Ethos – “…I will never accept defeat, I will never quit…” Although they were far across the ocean, her leaders and fellow Soldiers motivated her.
“As I shuffled around the neighborhood at a snail’s pace, I pictured my teammates in Iraq, driving around under dangerous conditions and giving their best for our nation,” Gibson said. “This inspired me and kept me from giving up altogether.”
Luckily for Gibson, this was a war she eventually won.
She learned a lot about herself during this experience, to include drawing on eyebrows.
“When my hair fell out, I learned to draw eyebrows with a dramatic Nicole Kidman arch. Unfortunately, I couldn’t draw two identical ones – my appearance was jarringly asymmetrical,” Gibson joked. “But I looked okay if viewed from the side.”
After the depths of her disappointment, finding the humor in her circumstances was an important part of getting back to some semblance of a normal life, if not the Soldier’s life she to which she had been so accustomed. And what’s more normal than finding new ways to embarrass your kids.
“I even felt a subversive, juvenile thrill from shocking others by going around bald and threatening my kids that I might just loiter at the mall some afternoon in a black leather biker’s jacket, hands in pockets with an unlit cigarette dangling from my mouth, waiting for security to tell me to move along,” Gibson said.
Gibson is forever changed.
She has a deeper relationship with her family, she developed a new sense of empathy for those who are lonely or facing challenges, and she grew stronger in her marriage.
“I once read that crisis reveals our true character, much as strong winds expose a tree’s shape by removing its leaves,” she said. “I still can’t say I’m glad I had cancer, but the experience clearly influenced who I am today.”
Not every life or death struggle takes place on the battlefield. The journey Gibson faced was one where her tomorrow’s were sometimes uncertain.
“Never take your life for granted. Sometimes, stuff happens, and one day that stuff will be bad, so live your life to the fullest, notice and be grateful for goodness and beauty, and take care of one another, every single day.”
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