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Reserve one star's new mission: Battling breast cancer

Oct. 1, 2013 - 01:09PM   |  
Gen. Kloster accepts challenge against new enemy: ...
Gen. Kloster accepts challenge against new enemy: ...: Brig. Gen. Michaelene "Mikey" Kloster oversees all hand-to-hand combat training for about 4,000 Army Reserve drill sergeants and is also a stage 3 breast cancer survivor. Klosters tells about her fight to beat cancer. (10/1/13)
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Army Reserve Brig. Gen. Michaelene 'Mikey' Kloster. Kloster discovered she had Stage 3 breast cancer in 2011. (Jennifer Corbett / The (Wilmington, Del.) News Jou)

JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. — Michaelene Kloster oversees all hand-to-hand combat training for about 4,000 Army Reserve drill sergeants from Maine to Puerto Rico.

Those trainers could learn a lot about toughness from the diminutive brigadier general.

It takes a lot of grit to come face-to-face with the enemy. But “Mikey” Kloster toughed it out through three surgeries – including a double mastectomy – and chemotherapy and radiation treatment, for the Stage 3 breast cancer an imaging exam revealed in the spring of 2011.

An estimated 230,480 U.S. women were diagnosed with invasive breast cancer that year, and 39,420 women were predicted to die from it. The precise figures are not yet available.

Kloster, with more than two decades of service and five commands under her belt, approached the disease like many in the military might have: as an objective to be taken.

Her initial reaction was a common one. “Why me?” said Kloster, 50, who was raised in Wilmington, commands the Army Reserve’s 98th Training Division at Fort Benning, Ga., on weekends and is civilian chief of staff for the 99th Regional Training Support Command at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. “You feel sorry for yourself a little bit.”

That didn’t last long. Kloster commanded a 500-troop personnel services battalion in Iraq in 2003, earned a combat action ribbon for taking enemy fire during convoy duty and was aboard a helicopter that in January 2004 was struck and grounded at night by an enemy rocket round. She decided to approach cancer as an Army unit would attack an enemy position.

“We have a mission,” she said. “Let’s get it done, let’s knock it out and get to the next thing. And I think I am so wired to do that – not only as a person, but also as a leader in the military. I’m used to beatin’ the enemy. This is my personal enemy, I’ve overcome other ones, and I’m going to overcome this ‘nasty.’ ”

She also took the diagnosis as a personal affront.

“You’re not gonna get the best of me,” Kloster said, personalizing the cancer. “You may take parts of my body away from me. But you’re not going to take away who I am, and my abilities, and things I’ve worked at, and things that people believe in me and count on me for. We don’t have to let that happen. And I didn’t let it.”

Not only has she survived this long; she’s done so through two critical points in her career, launched 29 years ago when she was named a distinguished military graduate of her 1984 ROTC class at the University of Delaware and began a decade of active-duty service before shifting to the National Guard and, for the past 13 years, the Army Reserve.

In 2007, following a hip replacement, a nerve problem left her leg temporarily paralyzed. “I didn’t walk unassisted for about a year,” she said.

Kloster feared being medically retired. She was in the midst of Army War College studies, a requirement for promotion from colonel to general. Instead, she graduated, completed her rehabilitation and was selected for command of a brigade.

Then, during an annual physical, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“We thought that I had one lump,” Kloster said of the initial exam. From the surface, it seemed small – she could barely feel it with her fingertips. But because of her age, her surgeon recommended an MRI. “We found three lumps on one side, and one lump on the other,” she said.

The protocol called for a double mastectomy. The surgery was performed at Virtua Memorial Hospital in Mount Holly, N.J., on July 5, 2011. Surgeons removed 15 lymph nodes, six of which were cancerous.

Chemotherapy – “That’s some tough stuff,” she said. “You’re very nauseous.” And the drug she was given to ensure her white blood count returned to normal, she said, “hurt more than the chemo did.”

The treatment lasted through Christmas.

Then, in mid-January, seven weeks of daily radiation treatment began. Kloster, employing British slang, said she received the “full monty” of cancer treatment. The pain, she said, could have been debilitating. She pushed it aside as best she could.

“I just dealt with it,” Kloster said. “I went to work every day I could go to work, because I did not want to sit around the house and feel sorry for myself. If I felt a little sick, that didn’t mean I couldn’t move. If I felt a lot sick and I couldn’t move, I stayed on the couch. But I needed to keep moving for my own mental health, and not let it get the best of me.”

Still, she expected to be told she would be medically discharged. The Army wants fit soldiers of all ranks, and the weakened Kloster couldn’t do a single pushup. Instead, she received an unexpected call just as her radiation treatments were finished: You’ve been selected for promotion to brigadier general.

“They clearly had confidence in me,” Kloster said. “I thought, wow, if that’s not a good shot in the arm to make you feel like you still have value and worth. It certainly revitalized and energized me.”

And, right out of the gates, the Army Reserve gave her a division command – her sixth command position.

Kloster was not a candidate for “revision” surgery – breast shape restoration that involves tissue transplants or implants – because the lymph node issues demand immediate radiation treatment. That can damage the surrounding skin, which can cause problems with implants and natural tissue reconstruction, according to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure. As such, the group said, immediate reconstruction is recommended – and the multiple-surgery revision process can take six months to a year, Kloster said.

It was a collective decision by Kloster and her doctors. “I really, really wanted to get the treatment,” she said, “because my life was much more important than my figure at that point in time. So I wear prosthetics when I need to.”

Kloster was more concerned about a different part of her body – her hair.

That fall, following her surgery, Kloster had to submit a packet of documents for the Army general officer selection board to consider. She had her official photo taken in August – four days before her hair fell victim to the chemo.

“I did not like my hair falling out,” she said. “I think, getting into what it means to be a woman, women just don’t sport the bald look very well. We don’t want to be bald, for the most part. But you, like, lose every hair on your body.”

Today, the 5-foot-3 Kloster looks fit and trim and said she feels good at 119 pounds. “I can’t go out and run a marathon, but I can certainly walk and jog right now,” she said. She can pass the Army’s physical fitness test, she said.

So far, so good. “I have my big checkup in November,” she said. “And we’ll keep our fingers crossed that I’m continuing to be healthy.”

To others, her advice is simple: “Go get your checkups,” she said. “Because you just don’t know. I was the epitome of health and fitness. This was a total surprise to me.

“It can make the difference between life and death.”

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