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NEWS | Oct. 21, 2014

Dealing with the hand you've been dealt

By Staff Sgt. Teresa J. Cleveland 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

U.S. Army Maj. Mari Groebner, McDonald Army Health Center Peri-Operative Services chief, took all the right steps in leading a healthy lifestyle.

When Groebner went in for a routine mammogram she thought nothing of it. She was asked to return to the clinic for a second mammogram and when the results came back inconclusive, the healthy runner went in for a breast biopsy.

"False positives can happen at any time, so I wasn't too worried about the multiple procedures at first," she said.

After the biopsy, Groebner was informed she had an aggressive form of breast cancer and was scheduled to see an oncologist right away.

"The real fear didn't come until I was waiting to see the oncologist," she said "The scariest part was the unknown; not knowing how advanced it is or what my chances are of beating it."

Groebner immediately leaned on her family, friends, co-workers and church family for strength. Her daughter, Jessica, flew to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, from El Paso, Texas, to be with her mother during her initial visit with the oncologist.

"They were my pillars of support," said Groebner. "They're the ones I could count on to encourage me to push through everything."

Groebner's friends and coworkers came by her home and office frequently to check on her, offering kind words and encouragement.

Following a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy, which involved removing breast tissue, Groebner endured three months of chemotherapy, with her husband, Bryon, by her side for each treatment. Even as she began losing her hair, eyebrows and eyelashes, she refused to give up living her life. After finishing chemotherapy in April 2013, she was accepted into the Command General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

"I still had my own goals in the military and wanted to continue progressing," said Groebner. "It wasn't easy, but I wasn't going to give up; I wasn't going to let this beat me."

While at the college, Groebner remained on a Herceptin treatment, a medication that attaches to the cancer cells and blocks them from dividing and growing. While on the medication, she pushed through its side effects of severe nausea, vomiting, fatigue, hair and weight loss without missing a day of class.

"If I were to sit at home it would have been very easy to wallow in self-pity and think 'this is it,'" she explained. "What got me through every day was the fact that I got up -- I had things to do and people to see. I stayed busy."

Although she lost all of the hair on her head, eyelashes and eyebrows, she refused to hide.

"I went through a phase when I bought a few wigs and friends gave me scarves but I hardly wore them," said Groebner. "When you look in the mirror, you look like a sick cancer patient, so there was no point for me to hide behind a wig or a scarf because I didn't look like myself with them on."

Donning confidence that only a fighter could hold came through the support of her  family.

"My husband would quote a song that sings, 'If it all fell out, I'd love you anyway' and he offered to shave his head," said Groebner. "My son tried to keep things entertaining by sending me things like a Bob Marley hat with the dreadlocks attached to it."

In March 2014, she completed the Herceptin treatment. Eight months after that her hair began to grow back. She transitioned from one medication which caused hair loss, to another that caused hair thinning. She began to feel nauseous less frequently and could see the color returning to her complexion.

As she began to heal, Groebner said she found solace in helping others fight breast cancer. She still frequently spends time in the Women's Health Clinic at MCAHC to offer support and understanding only a survivor could render.

"You don't know what tomorrow will bring, so make the best of every moment of every day," said Groebner. "Help others whenever you can because you don't know what they're going through. Do the right thing even when you don't feel like it. Be kind, be respectful and be honest."

With taking her own advice, Groebner continues to work toward a master's degree, and looks forward to future assignment opportunities.

Although cancer survivors are not considered cleared until they have been cancer free for at least five years, Groebner has made it through two years and remains positive for the future. Groebner said she has learned many things throughout her battle with breast cancer and feels she is stronger after surviving it.

"You don't always have a choice in what life deals you, but you do have a choice in how you meet and deal with the cards you've been dealt," said Groebner. "You just have to believe that no matter what, you can do this."