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Cancer Patients Discuss Experiences During DOD Moonshot 2 Initiative Roundtable

Image of The Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) hosted a Department of Defense Cancer Moonshot Roundtable, “A Conversation on Cancer Health Equity and Military-relevant Environmental Exposures,” on May 4. (Photo: Courtesy of Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences). The Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) hosted a Department of Defense Cancer Moonshot Roundtable, "A Conversation on Cancer Health Equity and Military-relevant Environmental Exposures," on May 4. (Photo: Courtesy of Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences)

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The cancer diagnosis came out of nowhere for Marine Corps Sgt. Michael Christian.

"I used to be a healthy person, so I noticed a change," Christian said. "I feel terrible all the time… I try to cut a tomato and I can't even hold a knife without my hands cramping."

The 24-year-old had just recently married and was deployed in Saudi Arabia, eager to get his reenlistment package, which was on its way to him. Before it reached him, he learned he was diagnosed with B-Cell leukemia. He said the diagnosis threw a wrench into his career and personal life, making him unsure of his future in the military.

Christian and three other cancer patients shared their stories as part of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU)-hosted Department of Defense Cancer Moonshot Roundtable, "A Conversation on Cancer Health Equity and Military-relevant Environmental Exposures," on May 4.

The roundtable was part of a series of agency events sponsored by the White House Cancer Moonshot initiative. President Joe Biden restarted the 2016 initiative with its goal of reducing death rates from cancer by 50 percent or more over the next 25 years. The ultimate goal of the effort, now called Moonshot 2, is to finally end cancer.

Improved Survival Rates

Melinda DeLoatch-Speight, whose husband was in the U.S. Coast Guard, ended up doing six rounds of chemotherapy as she fought stage 3 fallopian/ovarian cancer.

DeLoatch-Speight said she's considered the "energizer bunny" in her family and in all the many community organizations that she belongs to, but with her diagnosis, she was no longer able to do those activities.

"If it had not been for the Lord, my husband, my mom, my children, and my cousin — I don't know if I could have gotten through this without them," DeLoatch-Speight said. "I would be remiss if I didn't mention my medical team at Walter Reed (National Military Medical Center) gynecology — they were just amazing and they continue to be."

Cancer Moonshot - A U.S. Coast Guard spouse shares her story

DeLoatch-Speight said she hopes to continue on a healthy journey. "My grandson turned one year old on Saturday and I want to be here to see him graduate high school," DeLoatch-Speight said.

Cancer survivor Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Charles Felder said his early detection of prostate cancer was key.

"If I was not a service member and not required to do annual physicals, not having it be free where you can just go right in, I don't know if I'd be in the same position," Felder said. "I just went in as a routine, sure enough, there it was."

Dr. Jie Lin, a senior epidemiologist with the USU Murtha Cancer Center Research ProgramUSU Murtha Cancer Center Research Program website, explained during the roundtable discussion that studies have shown greater chances of cancer survival are found in those seeking treatment in the Military Health System (MHS).

"Access to healthcare has a large impact on cancer survival. However, in the U.S. general population, healthcare access is not equal to everyone and this disparity affects cancer care and, therefore, survival," Lin said. "In contrast to this unequal healthcare access in the general population, the military health care system provides universal health care to beneficiaries. Therefore, in the MHS, barriers to healthcare are minimized or reduced and survival is expected to be better."

Lin said the study into this issue shows MHS patients had better survival rates than patients from the general population. This includes lung cancer, with MHS cancer patients having 22 percent lower deaths than patients from the general population.

"And for breast cancer, 24 percent lower risks of death, for prostate cancer an overall 26 percent lower risk of deaths for MHS patients compared to the general population," Lin said. She added that the colon cancer risk was 18 percent lower, and brain cancer showed a 26 percent reduction in death compared to the general public.

According to Lin, the study suggests that universal health care improves cancer survival across the board.

"A Really Difficult Conversation"

Lt. Cmdr. Jennifer Jabara of the U.S. Public Health Service said she's spent her career helping, and volunteering her time, to those who have cancer.

"I'm a nurse by profession and have spent my entire career inspired by my grandfather's cancer journey and caring for cancer patients in a variety of ways from the bedside to the National Institutes of Health doing research," Jabara said. "…In addition to the work I was doing professionally, I also spent so much of my time volunteering for the American Cancer Society and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society."

Jabara affirmed that cancer can happen to anybody. After she recently gave birth to her second child, doctors discovered a tumor had formed alongside her pregnancy. After testing, she discovered it was cancerous.

"'And now you've got this big C diagnosis with a newborn at home and a three-year-old and a husband' … it doesn't discriminate, it happens to people just like us sitting at this table," Jabara said.

"And it took me a moment to be able to say those words, and I'm sure others can share this sentiment — the first time you have to call someone and say 'so I have cancer,' is a really difficult conversation."

Jabara said like the others at the table she found herself on a journey that none of them wanted to be on. She added that she hopes her experience with cancer while at discussions like the roundtable allows her to speak to the patient experience in a different way.

"It's all about conversation …more than anything, this is just the beginning of a much larger conversation that we'll all continue to come to the table for, so we can make a great difference," Jabara said. "and hopefully we won't need a Moonshot 4 or 5 and we get it done this time."

Cancer Moonshot Initiative - Lt. Cmdr. Jennifer Jabara shares her story

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