Air Force NCO Survives Cancer, Tackles Warrior Games

Photo: Air Force Staff Sgt. Lara Ishikawa, a cancer survivor, runs laps at the U.S. Air Force Academy indoor track during the Warrior Games training camp held in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 18, 2013. Ishikawa is stationed at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. U.S. Air Force photo by Desiree N. Palacios

Air Force Staff Sgt. Lara Ishikawa, a cancer survivor, runs laps at the U.S. Air Force Academy indoor track during the Warrior Games training camp held in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 18, 2013. Ishikawa is stationed at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. U.S. Air Force photo by Desiree N. Palacios

Story by Randy Roughton, Air Force News Service

Air Force Staff Sgt. Lara Ishikawa found herself part of a trio of female Air Force Warrior Games athletes with a special bond.

Ishikawa, Tech. Sgt. Monica Figueroa and Master Sgt. Sherry Nel are all cancer survivors and relied on each other’s support and conversation during the team’s selection camp at the U.S. Air Force Academy here.

Before the holidays in 2009, Ishikawa, then a diagnostic imaging technologist at Aviano Air Base, Italy, never imagined she would be running track and field events, not to mention in competition with wounded warrior athletes. She first felt a lump in her breast in December 2009, but her invasive mammary carcinoma wasn’t diagnosed until the following April.

“It’s heart-wrenching,” Ishikawa said. “Nobody expects to get cancer, and I had no family history of it. I’ve always been very healthy and active, and I tried to take care of myself. It was a shock, still a shock, but you learn to cope and move on.”

Ishikawa, whose cancer is now in remission after multiple surgeries, a double mastectomy and reconstruction, at first didn’t want to compete at the Warrior Games because she didn’t have a combat-related injury. However, conversations with Figueroa and Nel, along with other wounded warriors, changed her mind. She was already particularly close with Nel, who she befriended near the end of her recovery from chemotherapy and radiation in the 59th Medical Wing’s Patient Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.

“Lara and I are pretty much parallel with the complications we’ve had,” Nel said. “We’ve both had just about everything you can throw at us. We’d been doing it individually, thinking that we were both alone. It felt so good to find out that we were not alone. Lara really inspired me with her tenacity. She’s a little bear claw because she just grabs onto something and takes care of it. Her spirit really had me hooked.”

While the multiple surgeries sapped her energy in the past few years, she appears more than ready for the training and competition in the 100 and 200-meter and long jump track and field events.

“I feel more energetic today than I have in the past three years,” she said. “But in the past two and a half years, I had no energy because I had the surgeries, having to deal with the career, and the medications they put you on that make you tired.

“Last spring, I had a pretty serious surgery,” she continued. “After that, I could hardly walk, hardly make it up my stairs. I found it a challenge to go for a walk around the block, even though I knew it was good for me. I don’t like to sit around doing nothing, so I made myself take a walk and realized I could do that. The next thing I knew, two months later, I was running.”

Ishikawa said she’s worked hard to prepare herself for the Warrior Games.

“I’ve been pushed to my max,” she said. “I’m really sore, but I’m working muscles I haven’t worked in 15 to 20 years. And emotionally, I’ve met some incredible people.”

After participating in this year’s Warrior Games, Ishikawa said she hopes to continue on with her 10-year Air Force career. But if she’s not able to remain on duty, she said, she’ll adjust to a new course.

“I’ve enjoyed the Air Force,” Ishikawa said. “The Air Force has been wonderful to me in every way. I don’t have one complaint. On the other hand, if I get out, I can start a new life, maybe go to school.”

But Ishikawa’s main goal now “is to stay healthy,” she added.

“If I’m healthy, I’m happy,” she said.

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