Breast cancer is more common among people who’ve served in the military. These women have experienced it firsthand.
Army reservist Jessica Purcell, veteran Sally Mulcare, and photographer Charise Isis don’t have a lot in common.
Purcell currently lives in Florida with her husband and two children. She works in the U.S. Air Force Civilian Service full time.
Mulcare served in the army for 15 years and is now retired. She was stationed at Fort Jackson, Fort Harrison, Fort Dix, and Fort Irwin. She also spent time overseas in Germany.
Isis is a portrait photographer based in Kingston, New York. From time to time, she travels throughout the country to photograph people and dedicates herself to capturing the unique beauty of each of her subjects.
While they don’t have much in common, they all want to bring awareness to a very specific group of warrior women — servicewomen who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Purcell and Mulcare do this by sharing their stories, while Isis creates powerful portraits of breast cancer survivors.
Each year, more than 264,000 women find out they have breast cancer. That means roughly 1 in 8 women in the United States will develop breast cancer. If you have served in the military, your chance of developing breast cancer is 20% to 40% higher than the general population.
Purcell says she knew enlisting involved sacrifice and risk, but she never imagined it would look exactly like this. “I knew I was signing myself over to the government,” she said. “I knew I might be laying my life down, but I never thought it would be with cancer.”
She remembers finding out about her new diagnosis in August 2019, when she was 9 weeks pregnant with her second child, and being flabbergasted.
“It was like time stood still, and I was in an alternate universe. All I could think was, ‘I’m pregnant, and I’m dying?'” she recalled.
Initially, she wasn’t too worried about the lumps and bumps she felt in her left breast. She assumed they were from clogged ducts from breastfeeding her first child. But when she quit breastfeeding cold turkey, her milk dried up, but the lumps stayed and grew bigger.
“I saw my [obstetrician], but she just passed over the lumps. They were mostly under my nipple area and very obvious to me, but she wasn’t concerned. I made her take another look,” she said.
Purcell went for an ultrasound on base. Though the tech said the area was concerning and sent her for a biopsy, she wasn’t worried. “I thought, ‘Oh, I’m fine. It’s all fine.’ I was thinking statistically, since I am an analyst. I was only 35.”
She was so convinced everything was OK that she wasn’t worried when she went in for her results on the day she received her breast cancer diagnosis. “My husband was away on [military] duty. I would have gone alone, but my mother insisted on coming with me,” she said.
Purcell refused to go home without a plan, so she was sent for testing the same day. Through it all, her doctors kept bringing up terminating her pregnancy, but she refused, having just been devastated by a previous miscarriage.
She sought other opinions and transferred her care to Moffit Cancer Center. She also consulted with Dr. Elyse Cardonick at Cooper University. Cardonick researches pregnant women with cancer with an organization called Hope for 2. The doctors there recommended she begin an aggressive treatment plan.
Right away, Purcell felt reassured by the doctor’s compassion and from knowing she was not the only pregnant person she had worked with. Outside of her family, Cardonick was one of the few people who didn’t leave her feeling alone.
The military response was not as compassionate.
“The whole cancer ordeal has damaged my career. At the time I was diagnosed, I was a reservist. The army reserves didn’t keep my job [and] never checked on my family or me. They never even reported to my higher-ups that I was pregnant and had cancer. They initially denied my request to go inactive until I went over their heads to get my request approved,” she said.
“On top of everything, I was worried I’d lose my job,” she said.
With the rate of military personnel that have been diagnosed with cancer, the lackluster response to Purcell’s plight is shocking, but she is hardly alone.
Mulcare also received a subpar response from the military when dealing with her care through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
“I almost died on the operating table because of an error the Tampa VA hospital had made earlier,” Mulcare said. “They missed a blood test for genetic mutations and said everything was negative. It was not. They missed one piece of the thrombotic panel. It took a bunch of doctors to approve me to have that surgery — cardiologists, my primary doctor, surgeons, plastic surgeons, and they all missed it.”
“I think a civilian hospital would have checked,” she added. “That’s my opinion. Am I right or wrong? I couldn’t tell you, but my experience at the civilian hospitals was much nicer.”
It got to the point when she said, “Eff this sh*t. I have insurance. I’m going to go see a civilian. The VA care is restrictive. It’s a government program and goes to the lowest bidder, but the civilian care was willing to think beyond.”
Purcell says this isn’t the only way the military is lacking.
“I firmly believe there is negligence that takes place in the military regarding exposure. We don’t have enough PPE [personal protective equipment]. It’s absurd that we are not educating ourselves enough. Why am I buying uniforms full of fire retardants, and why don’t I have a protective layer between myself and my skin? I was so naive,” she laments in hindsight.
Based on her pathology, three providers believe she had been walking around with cancer for 5 years when she was diagnosed.
I’ve been born and bred to be a fighter. I’m doing what I have to do to help the cause.
“Five years earlier, I was in Afghanistan,” she said. “I was exposed to moon dust, chemicals, drinking protein shakes full of mold, drinking out of water bottles that had been sitting hot in the sun, PFAS in groundwater on base, fire retardants, and fuel. I’ve gone through five independent rounds of genetic testing and have a geneticist, and every test has determined that I have no genetic links to cancer.”
Like Purcell, Mulcare also had genetic testing done, and it came back with no genetic component to her cancer. “I know I was exposed to things such as water contamination,” Mulcare said. “I pay attention. I was at Fort Dix for a year, and that one seems to be a problem. That one was on the EPA list.”
Purcell mentioned that she found out that she had been exposed to all these carcinogens after her diagnosis. Upon joining the military, she says, “There was no warning label for cancer. No option to be informed.”
Purcell fought for her son throughout her cancer treatment and went on to deliver a healthy baby boy after her diagnosis, but her relief was short-lived. When he was 4 months old, she finished her radiation treatments, but a staging scan showed lesions on her liver. A biopsy confirmed that the cancer had spread.
“There’s nothing I can do to change it but be vocal and advocate to the best of my abilities. I don’t want other people to be in my position,” she said.
And that’s where Isis comes in, offering breast cancer survivors who have had mastectomies or have metastatic breast cancer a unique opportunity to share their stories with the world through The Grace Project. Isis has photographed more than 600 people with breast cancer, including 50 servicepeople through the Athena Division of the Grace Project, to create a powerful series of images of women warriors who would otherwise go unseen.
“I base the portraits on Athena, the courageous goddess of war,” Isis explains. “I drape them in camo fabric and hand them a sword or ancient weapon to convey the strong warriors that they are.”
Isis knows how transformative the experience of revealing your vulnerability on camera can be.
She recalls the first subject she photographed who had survived breast cancer. Her subject’s husband had booked a portrait session for his wife to make her feel beautiful. Midway through the session, Isis says her subject revealed herself.
“She stopped midway through the shoot and said, ‘I have a confession. I’m a 12-year breast cancer survivor. I have had a mastectomy and don’t feel beautiful, but my husband thinks I am.'” After the confession, she started revealing her remaining breast. At one point, she just flung off her top and revealed the other side. “It was really transformative for both her and me,” Isis said.
Seeing the moment of transformation sparked Isis to want to give this moment to more survivors, who may be left with body image issues and feeling generally disenfranchised.
As Purcell says, “I still struggle with having to look at myself. I’m so used to being the one with the smiley face, but now I feel like I hate the way I look. Cancer hijacked my body. I feel like a human quilt, I feel ripped off, and I feel angry. I feel like I look angry. It’s different. Totally different.”
After having launched the Grace Project in 2008, a friend and veteran, Donna Glen, came to Isis in 2015 to talk about a study that revealed an increased risk of breast cancer in military personnel. “The study was swept under the rug,” Isis said, so she decided to do a chapter of her project to shed light on this issue.
To date, Isis has photographed 50 veterans who have breast cancer in hopes of bringing more awareness to the increased cancer risk. Through the Athena Division, Isis has given vets like Purcell a platform to help others.
“I’ve been born and bred to be a fighter,” Purcell says. “I’m doing what I have to do to help the cause.”
And perhaps the best way for Purcell to continue soldiering on is by standing in front of a camera and bearing her scars to the world in a moment of vulnerability many servicepeople don’t have.
“There’s a lot of power standing in front of the camera with your scars. You’re asking the world to accept your story and this really deep thing that’s happening to you,” Isis said.
Mulcare echoed this, saying the experience of stepping in front of Isis’s camera was very empowering. Of seeing the powerful images Isis captured of her, she said, “I felt proud because I look proud in the photos. The cancer may have me, but that doesn’t mean it’s who I am.”
Purcell agrees. “I chose to do the photo, but I didn’t choose to be the person with cancer in the photo. I didn’t choose that situation. I’m just the vessel. The body and the voice that this has happened to. My story isn’t everyone’s story, but if it helps one person be informed, then at least it has meaning.”
Medically reviewed on November 14, 2022
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