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NewsAnnouncements : Breast, Brain Cancer Survivor Keeps Faith, Stays Strong In Face of Challenges

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Breast, Brain Cancer Survivor Keeps Faith, Stays Strong In Face of Challenges

11/29/2017

By Bernard S. Little and Kalila Fleming

WRNMMC Command Communications

"Keep the Faith, Keep the Fight, Stay Encouraged and Rock On," said Linda Casteal, a breast and brain cancer survivor in explaining how she lives her life and the advice she shares with others meeting their challenges.
First diagnosed with breast cancer 18 years ago, Casteal, 47, has since faced additional battles against multiple sclerosis in 2001, a second diagnosis of breast cancer in 2006, and brain cancer in 2014. She credits her faith, support from her family and the care of the medical professionals at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center with saving her life.
A native of Shreveport, Louisiana, Casteal was active duty Army when she began experiencing pain in her breast in 1999. She went to her primary care doctor who felt a lump “a little harder than a cyst” in her left breast. “They sent me to the General Surgery Clinic where they performed an aspiration.”
Casteal said the aspiration was followed by a biopsy, which was 99 percent negative. “The doctors went back in and found the 1 percent that was cancerous,” she added.
When she first got the news she had breast cancer, Casteal said she recalled just sitting in the hospital lobby crying because she went alone not expecting to get those “shocking results.”  She contacted her supervisor with the results, “trying to hold back tears,” and explained she had to sit in the lobby for a while prior to driving back. “He spoke with me for a minute with encouragement and instructed me to go home and to call him to ensure I got there safely.
“I was 28 confused and shocked,” she said.
According to the National Institutes of Health, about 7 percent of women with breast cancer are diagnosed before the age of 40 years. At the age of 30, the risk for women of developing breast cancer is one in 227, and that number increases to one in 68 at age 40. However, breast cancer occurs indiscriminately, and all women should be aware of their personal risk factors for the disease.
Casteal explained that the Breast Cancer Center at WRNMMC Specialized Oncology Clinic tested her for special genetic disposition.  Testing results showed Casteal inherited a mutated BRCA 1 Gene, which her only and older sister lost the battle with the disease and both nieces tested positive for BRCA1 gene that could produce the hereditary breast-ovarian cancer syndrome.
Casteal added her daughter has been tested for the mutated BRCA1 gene which can cause cancer and results were negative. However, her son did test positive for the mutated gene although he has not developed breast cancer.  Less than 1 percent of all breast cancer develops in males, according to the American Cancer Society, which estimates for 2017 about 2,470 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in men.
Treated at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Casteal had a modified radical mastectomy on her left breast. “They treated me with urgent care, staying on top of things and really spoiling”, as she recalled of her care.
A mother of two, a daughter Gabrielle, 25, and a son Keianno, 23, Casteal worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency after medical retirement from the Army following nine years of active duty. She explained that she remained in the area to continue working for the agency because it was important to her to continue to receive her care at Walter Reed, which also included numerous surgical procedures to include further breast cancer care that provides breast reconstruction.
Casteal said she continues to pray and remains hopeful her son will not develop the disease, and it is her faith which has seen her through her challenges.
In May 2001, Casteal began to experience pain and numbness in her legs, which led to her being diagnosed with MS. Although she has no paralysis, she explained she can’t run like she used to enjoy doing, but she is grateful that she is still able to get around extremely well.
Casteal continued to work and enjoy time with her children even after facing her battle with breast cancer and MS diagnosis. Then in 2006, her right breast began to bother her. She was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer in her breast and underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy.
Breast cancer treatment and the medicine she was taking for her MS were challenging, Casteal said. “It felt like a sledgehammer smashing my bones. I was just weak and couldn’t do anything.”
She said it was during this period her faith became even stronger. “I just thanked God for Walter Reed, the doctors are so awesome and with my faith in God, they literally saved my life.”
Casteal added she prayed that God would keep her here to raise her children. “After that, it was God’s will,” she said.
In 2014, Casteal explained she began experiencing bad headaches and her kids, who by that time were in their 20s, began noticing she was having difficulty speaking. Her neurologist sent her to the hospital for a MRI.
“For some reason, I just happened to be at home and not at work the day the hospital called and told me to have someone to immediately drive me to the hospital,” Casteal recalled. She explained tests showed she had a cancerous tumor the size of a golf ball on her brain.
“I felt like I was moving in slow motion,” Casteal added.
Because of Casteal’s incoherent condition at the time, doctors had to leave the decision of whether to perform the difficult operation on her brain up to her adult children. As hard as that decision was for them, Casteal said she is very grateful they gave the go-ahead for the surgery that was 13-plus hours, which was due to the location and size of the tumor.
“All I needed was a chance to fight,” Casteal said. “I just needed to be in the ring and although my back was against the ropes, I just needed the opportunity to fight, and I thank my kids and the doctors for giving me that opportunity, and told my daughter thank you for signing the surgical authorization documents.”
She said the combination of treatments for her MS and brain cancer was tough, and probably the most challenging part was her was her “total loss of cognitive functions and having to relearn to do everything differently again.” She recalled during one group therapy session as part of her treatment stating, “I just want my memory and I was just like a blank slate; to start all over again was difficult.”
Casteal medically retired from the federal government in January 2017, and said, “It was a terrible and painful wake-up call” to realize that she couldn’t operate cognitively like she used to because she “literally loved the type of challenging work she performed daily on her job.”
It was an adjustment for her kids as well, Casteal added. She explained frustration would set in when she would ask them simple questions and they would answer as usual and I couldn’t understand their responses and asked the questions repeatedly. “I had to learn how to rethink things I needed them to break things down to the lowest level for me, so I could grasp what they were trying to tell me”. That hurt them, but they didn’t cry in front of me. I said, “I am not able to be the same me, but I’m going to work on becoming a new better me.”
“I love to laugh. I love to live,” said Casteal, who added she will not let herself engage in negativity despite her challenges. “Whoever I can inspire and encourage, that is what I would like to do.”
She added she would ultimately like to return to work for government, but she realizes right now she’s not cognitively there. “The good thing is I know it and I am working on it.”
Casteal is currently in the brain fitness program at Walter Reed Bethesda. The program, designed for service members and others with traumatic brain injuries, uses computer-based tools and other resources to help patients develop healthy brain habits and improve thinking skills. Casteal said that she realizes she has residual issues from her MS and brain tumor, but that “they are nothing to keep her down. I just keep moving.”
She also has words of encouragement to others: “Keep the faith, Stay Positive and Stay Encouraged.”
Casteal also has positive things to say about the care she’s received at Walter Reed for nearly 20 years. “What I love about this hospital is they are not going to stop until they find the problem. That’s been my experience.”
Janice Basham and Catherine Kofa, nurses who work in the Breast Care Center at Walter Reed Bethesda, have played a role in Casteal’s care since she was treated WRAMC.
Basham said just being with patients throughout their treatment is supportive. “Like in Linda’s case, she was just happy to see the same faces. To be able to connect with that one person who can see what you’re going through can be supportive. It’s also rewarding for providers to see the transformation their patients undergo in their recovery process. It’s just like a flower blossoming,” she added.
“We see patients from the point of when they go into pre-op to get their biopsy to when they get the news of their diagnosis,” Basham continued. “We are there to give them a nice big, warm hug, because sometimes, people just need that. We’re with them throughout their care. It’s very rewarding because I feel as though I’m giving back. I’ve had people in my family who’ve had cancer and it’s a rocky road to have to go through.”
Basham added the Breast Care Center, which is a component of the John P. Murtha Cancer Center at WRNMMC, has a multi-disciplinary approach to care, offering patients services from social workers, oncologists, hematologists and other specialists. The Murtha Cancer Center is the only designated cancer center of excellence in the Department of Defense.
“It’s amazing what Linda has gone through with her cancers and MS,” Basham continued. “You have to tell some patients, ‘Stop the tears and you’ve got to move on with your life.’ They have to have a good support system and have to fight, like Linda,” she added. “You have to be fighting and in your mind thinking, ‘I’m going to fight this, I’m going to make it through this, and I’m going to survive.’ She added patients must look in the mirror and tell themselves, “I’m beautiful, I’m strong, and I’m powerful.”