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From cancer to calendar model: Airman raises awareness

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Tech. Sgt. Kimberly Davis survived breast cancer and was invited to participate in the Safeway Buddy Check9 Calendar 2014 as a model for October to raise awareness. Davis is a recognitions service team member at Air Reserve Personnel Center. (Courtesy photo/Tommy Collier)

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Tech. Sgt. Kimberly Davis survived breast cancer and was invited to participate in the Safeway Buddy Check9 Calendar 2014 as a model for October to raise awareness. Davis is a recognitions service team member at Air Reserve Personnel Center. (Courtesy photo/Tommy Collier)

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Tech. Sgt. Kimberly Davis survived breast cancer and was invited to participate in the Safeway Buddy Check9 Calendar 2014 as a model for October to raise awareness. Davis is a recognitions service team member at Air Reserve Personnel Center. (Courtesy photo/Tommy Collier)

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Tech. Sgt. Kimberly Davis survived breast cancer and was invited to participate in the Safeway Buddy Check9 Calendar 2014 as a model for October to raise awareness. Davis is a recognitions service team member at Air Reserve Personnel Center. (Courtesy photo/Tommy Collier)

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Staff Sgt. Kimberly Gilbert, who recently finished with treatments for breast cancer, prepares to be pinned on as technical sergeant, June 7, at Air Reserve Personnel Center, where she works as a recognitions service team specialist. (U.S. Air Force photo)

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Staff Sgt. Kimberly Gilbert, who recently finished with treatments for breast cancer, prepares to be pinned on as technical sergeant, June 7, at Air Reserve Personnel Center, where she works as a recognitions service team specialist. (U.S. Air Force photo)

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- She might be next year's Miss October in the annual Buddy Check9 Calendar by Safeway, but her experience as a breast cancer survivor, mother and Airman is a year-round example for women in and out of the service. Her road from survivor to calendar model, however, wasn't easy.

Tech. Sgt. Kimberly Davis, an Air Reserve Personnel Center recognitions services team member, found out November last year she had breast cancer after finding a lump.

"I started being really adamant about my monthly self-checks," Davis said, who decided to start checking the signs of cancer, in general, due to her mother passing away from lung cancer in 2009. "I discovered the lump, myself. I checked with my (primary care manager) to make sure it wasn't cancer. But to our surprise, it was cancer."

As it has been for many, finding out she had Stage (extent) 1, Grade (severity) 1 cancer was devastating news, but her doctors didn't give her much time to worry about what to do.

"They were immediate in their course of action with it," Davis said, whose PCM directed her to the Anschutz Center of the University of Colorado, who set her up with a team of doctors Davis referred to as the "best of the best, not only in Colorado, but also the nation" who ensured she had everything she needed. That came into play later when they discovered the grade of cancer was actually level 2 and required a more aggressive approach to treatment. "For that, I was grateful."

While the team of doctors set Davis on a tight schedule to address the cancer, she had to figure out how she would communicate it with her family, friends and colleagues.

"I told the unit, first, here," Davis said. "Most people wanted to know what they could do for me. My family, of course, took it real hard, because I was here, not there."

Davis' family wanted her home near Macon, Ga., so they could take care of her. She decided to stay with her unit in Colorado both for the available care from the University of Colorado and the support of her colleagues.

"(My Air Force Family) came out in force," she said. "I had people cook meals, take me to appointments. A lot of them took care of my daughter." Due to the radiation treatments, her child could not always stay home with her as Davis had no immune system, and so stayed with coworkers, many of whom brought her food at home after treatments. "Anything and everything I needed, they made sure that it happened for me."

Among those coming out in support of Davis included ARPC vice commander Col. Kenneth Klein and his wife.

"We had great concern for an Air Force Family member," Klein said. "We had deep desire to make sure everything that could be done, was done to help her and her daughter."

That support came at a time crucial for Davis, who said her experience was more difficult than she expected.

"I expected to lose my hair," she said. "Compared to what really happened, I was so unprepared. I had no clue what radiation was going to do. It was very tiring. I'm still dealing with side effects from radiation. Nothing could have prepared me for chemo."

That battle went from physical to emotional as Davis had to come to grips with being unable to care for her daughter, depending heavily on others during her more difficult periods and pressing through despite the difficulty.

"I went into a deep depression," she said. "I went into one of those phases, where I didn't want to go to church anymore. For me it was hard. I was faithful to my church, to God. I felt like somehow 'God had turned his back on me.' I was angry, upset, at that 'Why me?' stage." Davis said the discovery that the whole procedure could remove her ability to have more children, something she wanted to at least have the option later, was particularly difficult. "I had to draw on the strength of friends and family to will myself to keep going. I would think about my daughter and my family. I got a reason to want to keep going on."

Davis came through the initial shock of discovering her cancer, planning to battle it, and facing complications, all the while working for the Air Force as a single mom. Towards the end of her journey, her doctor recommended her for something unique.

"My oncologist, Dr. Virginia Borges, came to me after my last treatment, and asked 'How would you like to be in a calendar?'" Davis said, who was invited to participate in the 2014 Buddy Check Calendar, an annual project hosted by the local NBC affiliate, 9News, which features cancer survivors as models for each month. She contacted Channel 9 and was invited out to participate as one of the twelve women chosen for 2013. "This year they decided they wanted all women to be under the age of 40 when they were diagnosed. We wanted to show people that you shouldn't just wait till you're 40 years old to get a mammogram. You should be checking as early as in your early 20's."

One of the women in the calendar had discovered cancer when she was 27, and Davis said this was a paramount example of her purpose in participating.

"A lot of us, had we waited till 40, we would not be here," she said.

Her example did not go unnoticed. Davis' cousin called her afterward to ask if Davis had found out if her cancer was hereditary - which it wasn't - but also to announce she had gotten the message and would be taking herself and her mother to get a mammogram. Her impact continues an important legacy, both for herself and her family.

"We often forget that everyone has struggles of varying degrees," Klein said. "She's come through this adversity because of her drive and dedication ... and because she has so much to offer the Air Force and anyone she touches."

Due to the overall experience with the cancer and the calendar, Davis found a new approach to life, one she didn't want to push off by expecting endless opportunities to explore hopes in her life.

"Since I've had cancer, I've learned to live every day and experience everything that I want to experience," Davis said. "When you go through a life-changing event like that, and you realize that you've been given a second chance, you don't want to take that chance for granted. There is no day like today."