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Strong Survivor

Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, pauses for a moment during a portrait session. Thibeaux, 27, is scheduled to have double mastectomy surgery at the San Antonio Medical Center to remove the cancer from both breasts. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, pauses for a moment during a portrait session. Thibeaux, 27, is scheduled to have double mastectomy surgery at the San Antonio Medical Center to remove the cancer from both breasts. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, exuberantly lifts her hands with the U.S. flag one day prior to having double mastectomy surgery to remove cancer from both of her breasts. Thibeaux, 27, one of the youngest breast cancer patients at the San Antonio Medical Center, has battled with the disease since Feb. 2014. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, exuberantly lifts her hands with the U.S. flag one day prior to having double mastectomy surgery to remove cancer from both of her breasts. Thibeaux, 27, one of the youngest breast cancer patients at the San Antonio Medical Center, has battled with the disease since Feb. 2014. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Dental technical school, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, wipes her eyes as doctors inform her husband Wendell and mother Carla prior to double mastectomy surgery. Wendell and Carla have provided love and support for Thibeaux since doctors made the discovery of breast cancer. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Dental technical school, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, wipes her eyes as doctors inform her husband Wendell and mother Carla prior to double mastectomy surgery. Wendell and Carla have provided love and support for Thibeaux since doctors made the discovery of breast cancer. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, hold onto a wig she would wear after her chemotherapy treatments. After doctors diagnosed her with cancer in Feb. 2014, Thibeaux's initial concerns were family, death and her hair. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, hold onto a wig she would wear after her chemotherapy treatments. After doctors diagnosed her with cancer in Feb. 2014, Thibeaux's initial concerns were family, death and her hair. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, spends time with her friends after having double mastectomy surgery. About 15 family and friends gathered at her house to celebrate a successful surgery and provide love to Thibeaux during her quest to defeat cancer. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, spends time with her friends after having double mastectomy surgery. About 15 family and friends gathered at her house to celebrate a successful surgery and provide love to Thibeaux during her quest to defeat cancer. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Somaya, 2, daughter of Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, reaches up for Ice cream as her grandmother Carla guides her Big Wheel.  At two years old, Somaya is unaware of her mothers battle with cancer and tried to play with her every chance she can, but is limited to certain activities. About 15 family and friends gathered at her house to celebrate a successful surgery and provide love to Thibeaux during her quest to defeat cancer. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Somaya, 2, daughter of Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, reaches up for Ice cream as her grandmother Carla guides her Big Wheel. At two years old, Somaya is unaware of her mothers battle with cancer and tried to play with her every chance she can, but is limited to certain activities. About 15 family and friends gathered at her house to celebrate a successful surgery and provide love to Thibeaux during her quest to defeat cancer. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, smiles as her mother Carla gives her a hug. Thibeaux, 27, the youngest breast cancer patient at San Antonio Medical Center, was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2014. Her mother Carla scheduled administrative leave to be there for Thibeaux and her family during double mastectomy surgery. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, smiles as her mother Carla gives her a hug. Thibeaux, 27, the youngest breast cancer patient at San Antonio Medical Center, was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2014. Her mother Carla scheduled administrative leave to be there for Thibeaux and her family during double mastectomy surgery. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, smiles as her mother Carla gives her a hug. Thibeaux, 27, the youngest breast cancer patient at San Antonio Medical Center, was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2014. Her mother Carla scheduled administrative leave to be there for Thibeaux and her family during double mastectomy surgery. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, smiles as her mother Carla gives her a hug. Thibeaux, 27, the youngest breast cancer patient at San Antonio Medical Center, was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2014. Her mother Carla scheduled administrative leave to be there for Thibeaux and her family during double mastectomy surgery. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, shares a laugh with her mother Carla while watching a video on her phone. As Thibeaux and her mother waited for doctors to perform checks prior to double mastectomy surgery, Carla kept her daughter in good spirits with laughs and loving reminders. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, shares a laugh with her mother Carla while watching a video on her phone. As Thibeaux and her mother waited for doctors to perform checks prior to double mastectomy surgery, Carla kept her daughter in good spirits with laughs and loving reminders. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Wendell Thibeaux, husband of Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Dental technical school, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, hug prior to Chantel's double mastectomy surgery. Thibeaux, 27, the youngest breast cancer patient at San Antonio Medical Center, was diagnosed with breast cancer in Feb. 2014 after Wendell encouraged her to get a lump on her breast checked. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)
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Wendell Thibeaux, husband of Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Dental technical school, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, hug prior to Chantel's double mastectomy surgery. Thibeaux, 27, the youngest breast cancer patient at San Antonio Medical Center, was diagnosed with breast cancer in Feb. 2014 after Wendell encouraged her to get a lump on her breast checked. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Somaya, 2, daughter of Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, looks into the house while her mother and father Wendell talk during a family barbeque.  At two years old, Somaya is unaware of her mothers battle with cancer and tried to play with her every chance she can, but is limited to certain activities. About 15 family and friends gathered at her house to celebrate a successful surgery and provide love to Thibeaux during her quest to defeat cancer. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)
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Somaya, 2, daughter of Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, looks into the house while her mother and father Wendell talk during a family barbeque. At two years old, Somaya is unaware of her mothers battle with cancer and tried to play with her every chance she can, but is limited to certain activities. About 15 family and friends gathered at her house to celebrate a successful surgery and provide love to Thibeaux during her quest to defeat cancer. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, positions a wig she would wear after her chemotherapy treatments.  As time moved along, Thibeaux began to find strength in leaving the wig at home. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)
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Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, positions a wig she would wear after her chemotherapy treatments. As time moved along, Thibeaux began to find strength in leaving the wig at home. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Somaya, 2, daughter of Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, stands on the couch while her mother and grandmother Carla watch her drink water.  At two years old, Somaya is unaware of her mothers battle with cancer and tried to play with her every chance she can, but is limited to certain activities. About 15 family and friends gathered at her house to celebrate a successful surgery and provide love to Thibeaux during her quest to defeat cancer. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)
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Somaya, 2, daughter of Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, stands on the couch while her mother and grandmother Carla watch her drink water. At two years old, Somaya is unaware of her mothers battle with cancer and tried to play with her every chance she can, but is limited to certain activities. About 15 family and friends gathered at her house to celebrate a successful surgery and provide love to Thibeaux during her quest to defeat cancer. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

A tear begins to fall down the face of Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, as she receives treatment from a nurse after surgery at the San Antonio Medical Center. With her husband and mother standing by her bed side saying encouraging words, Thibeaux slowly regains energy throughout the night. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)
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A tear begins to fall down the face of Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, as she receives treatment from a nurse after surgery at the San Antonio Medical Center. With her husband and mother standing by her bed side saying encouraging words, Thibeaux slowly regains energy throughout the night. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, peeks down at a line of Airmen laughing during their graduation rehearsal. Thibeaux's battle with breast cancer didn't stop her from bonding with the Airmen she was charged to prepare for the operational Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)
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Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, peeks down at a line of Airmen laughing during their graduation rehearsal. Thibeaux's battle with breast cancer didn't stop her from bonding with the Airmen she was charged to prepare for the operational Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Wendell Thibeaux, husband of Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Dental technical school, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, holds back tears as doctors read the surgery risks to his wife prior to double mastectomy surgery. Thibeaux, 27, the youngest breast cancer patient at San Antonio Medical Center, was diagnosed with breast cancer in Feb. 2014 after Wendell encouraged her to get a lump on her breasts checked. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)
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Wendell Thibeaux, husband of Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Dental technical school, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, holds back tears as doctors read the surgery risks to his wife prior to double mastectomy surgery. Thibeaux, 27, the youngest breast cancer patient at San Antonio Medical Center, was diagnosed with breast cancer in Feb. 2014 after Wendell encouraged her to get a lump on her breasts checked. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, stands up for the first time after double mastectomy surgery.  Thibeaux, 27, was one of the youngest breast cancer patients at the San Antonio Medical Center to have double mastectomy surgery. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)
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Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, stands up for the first time after double mastectomy surgery. Thibeaux, 27, was one of the youngest breast cancer patients at the San Antonio Medical Center to have double mastectomy surgery. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Dental technical school, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, begins to cry as doctors read the surgery risks prior to double mastectomy surgery. Thibeaux, 27, the youngest breast cancer patient at San Antonio Medical Center, was diagnosed with breast cancer in Feb. 2014 after Wendell encouraged her to get a lump on her breast checked. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)
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Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Dental technical school, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, begins to cry as doctors read the surgery risks prior to double mastectomy surgery. Thibeaux, 27, the youngest breast cancer patient at San Antonio Medical Center, was diagnosed with breast cancer in Feb. 2014 after Wendell encouraged her to get a lump on her breast checked. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Wendell Thibeaux, husband of Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Dental technical school, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, waits for his wife as doctors bring her out after surgery. The two have been nearly inseparable since discovering the disease. Wendell has supported Chantel every step of the way. Doctors informed Wendell that the surgery went very well.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)
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Wendell Thibeaux, husband of Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Dental technical school, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, waits for his wife as doctors bring her out after surgery. The two have been nearly inseparable since discovering the disease. Wendell has supported Chantel every step of the way. Doctors informed Wendell that the surgery went very well. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, rests after double mastectomy surgery at the San Antonio Medical Center.  Thibeaux slowly regained energy throughout the night with the support of her family. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)
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Staff Sgt. Chantel Thibeaux, Joint Base-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, dental assistant instructor, rests after double mastectomy surgery at the San Antonio Medical Center. Thibeaux slowly regained energy throughout the night with the support of her family. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Fort Meade, MD --

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.”

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