Strong Survivor

  • Published
  • By Airman Magazine Staff
  • Airman Magazine

During Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux’s second week of chemotherapy, her usually long, dark hair was steadily falling out, and her typical inner strength began to waver.


“I’m going to look like a boy,” she told her husband, Wendell. “Nobody wants to be married to a boy.”

But Wendell, who she describes as “a rock” through her ordeal with breast cancer, quickly reassured her.

“You’re beautiful, no matter what,” he told her. “With or without hair, short or long hair, I’m going to love you.”

Wendell’s support, along with that of her mother, Carla, and other family and friends, became vital after Thibeaux was diagnosed almost exactly a year ago in March 2014. A 381st Training Squadron dental assistant apprentice technical school instructor at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Thibeaux had just gotten her first class by herself when she discovered a lump the size of a penny in the middle of her chest in January. She thought it was just a cyst because it didn’t hurt.

Wendell had a feeling it was something serious and encouraged her to go to the doctor to have it checked, but she waited until after she graduated her first class in late February. By then, the mass had increased to the size of a quarter. Her family care provider sent her to an ultrasound clinic the next day, and her radiologist immediately ordered a biopsy. Three days later, Thibeaux received the call no one wants. She was told she had breast cancer. All she could think about was how, at the age of 26, she didn’t want to leave her husband and their 2-year-old daughter, Somaya.

“The first thing that went through my head was my child,” Thibeaux said. “She’s young. What if I’m going to die? Because my grandmother had it, and everyone I’ve known who has had it, has died. But I didn’t know anyone my age with it. I just thought I was going to die. It made me really anxious just because of the unknown.”

Thibeaux began four months of chemotherapy in April before her surgery Sept. 25.

She fortunately didn’t experience many of the side effects people usually suffer from chemo treatments, although she did get migraine headaches from the white blood cell shots she was given. Other than that, it was mostly extreme fatigue, especially for the couple of days after her chemo treatments. Fortunately, her mother was able to get time off from her job as a federal employee in Virginia Beach, Virginia, to take care of her for a month and a half, as well as for another five weeks during her surgery in September.

But for the most part, this was the time when Thibeaux had to rely on her husband. In addition to being her emotional support, Wendell handled the cooking and housework, and took care of Somaya.

Wendell knew he just had to be strong until his wife’s own inner strength kicked in, and she would be back to the strong, independent woman he fell in love with when they were both stationed at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. For a while, the couple couldn’t engage in the horseplay they usually love so much as a family because she was so tired.

“I felt like this would be the toughest task I ever faced,” the former Airman said. “It’s one thing to be a friend or relative from a distance. It’s when you’re actually in that environment every day, and you’re supposed to be the main supporter, that it’s really tough. But I never doubted myself because I knew that eventually she would come around and be back to herself and say, ‘I’m going to fight this and do what I have to do, not only for myself, but for my family.’”

Just as Wendell predicted, Thibeaux’s strength did eventually take over. She focused on positivity, partially through many inspirational Bible verses and quotations people sent her.

“I learned we can get through anything,” she said. “But there was no way I could’ve done this by myself. I really have so much compassion for people like single parents who don’t have anybody who go through something like this. I can’t imagine coming home to an empty house having to deal with this by myself.”

Thibeaux just completed her last radiation treatment Jan. 7. Looking back on her ordeal, she wants other women to learn from her and do their own self-examinations to be sure to catch potential cancer early. She encourages anyone who does have to go through what she did to rely on their loved ones’ support and try to continue living life as normally as they can.

The importance of this lesson recently reoccurred to her after the death of ESPN anchor Stuart Scott at the age of 49. She reflected on his 2014 ESPYs speech when he talked about how a person beats cancer and on how it especially sounded true for her.

“He said, ‘When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and in the manner in which you live.’ That was pretty much how I beat it, by still being me.”

Part of being herself meant getting back to supporting Wendell for his JBSA-Lackland Warhawks basketball games as soon as she started to get her strength back. Her husband worried she was pushing herself too hard physically, but understood that her presence at the games served an important emotional purpose.

“I think she tried a little too hard to come out,” Wendell said. “There were days I would tell her we’d have a game, and she didn’t have to go. Just stay home and rest. But you can’t stop a person who has a goal, and she was going to come no matter what.”

Before long, Thibeaux’s lost hair wasn’t nearly the concern it was when she had Wendell cut the last bit off three weeks into her chemotherapy. Somaya also inadvertently helped after not even noticing her mother no longer had her hair.

“One day, we were sitting on the couch watching TV, and she just grabs my head and kissed it,” Thibeaux said. “She said, ‘Oh, Mommy, I like your hair!’ And I didn’t have hair. She was rubbing it, and then she hugs it and laid her head on it. She would do that often.”

Now that her hair can grow back, Thibeaux isn’t sure she wants it to. One day, she told her husband, “Babe, I’m thinking I may just keep my hair short. Everything happens for a reason.”