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NEWS | Oct. 28, 2021

Cancer diagnosis leads Airman to BAMC for treatment

By Lori Newman Brooke Army Medical Center Public Affairs

A rare cancer diagnosis led a young Airman to Brooke Army Medical Center for lifesaving care.

Airman 1st Class Chelsea Kernan was at her first duty station at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana, when she began experiencing pain in her left hip.

“I was in a lot of pain and I was limping,” said the 25-year-old Security Forces specialist. “When I coughed, sneezed or laughed it would give me excruciating pain.”

An MRI revealed a three-inch mass. She was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare type of cancer that occurs in bones or in the soft tissue around the bones. It most often begins in the leg bones and in the pelvis. Kernan was sent to BAMC for treatment in September 2020.

“Ewing’s sarcoma happens at a rate of one in a million in the United States,” explained Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Della Howell, pediatric hematologist/oncologist. “It’s more common in the second decade of life.

In Chelsea’s case, it was in her pelvic bone.

Before being treated for the cancer, Kernan underwent in vitro and egg preservation to help sustain her ability to have children.

“Sometimes the cancer treatments can damage the ovaries and make women, even young women, go into premature menopause,” said Air Force Maj. (Dr.) Samantha Simpson, a reproductive endocrinologist. “By doing in vitro and freezing her eggs, she is assured of her future fertility and increases the chance she can have her own children.”

Kernan’s cancer treatment began with six inpatient chemotherapy treatments, which took about three months to complete. She then underwent a hemipelvectomy, a surgical procedure to remove a portion of her pelvic girdle. After she recovered from the surgery, she had 11 more cycles of chemotherapy.

“She spent almost a year with our Pediatric Oncology service from the time she was diagnosed until the time she finished her treatments,” Howell said. “Since she has no signs of any cancer at this time, we are hopeful she will have a very good prognosis. Our goal of treatment was to cure her of her cancer.”

Kernan celebrated this significant milestone Oct. 15 by ringing the bell in the Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Clinic. This is a festive rite of passage when someone finishes their cancer treatment.

“We don’t say that someone is fully cured until they’ve had about five years of time being cancer-free,” Howell said. “She’ll need to keep getting imaging studies to make sure the cancer doesn’t come back.”

The young airman is currently undergoing physical therapy at the Center for the Intrepid. Her goal is to continue her Air Force career in Security Forces.

Even though Kernan’s treatment was grueling, she is thankful.

“I love BAMC and my doctors and nurses,” she said. “I think BAMC was honestly the best place I could get treatment.”