MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif -- Staff Sgt. Diane Durden glows with vitality and good humor, despite having breast cancer. With support from family, friends and even strangers, she thanks all those who inspire her and continue to motivate her during this trying time.
At the age of 40 and with no family history of the disease, Durden, the Headquarters Battalion, Bravo Company gunnery sergeant, doesn’t seem like a typical breast cancer patient
But after feeling a lump in her breast in December, Durden, a 19-year veteran of the Corps, prepared herself for the worst. On February 8 while in the doctor’s office, Durden absorbed the news that she did in fact have breast cancer.
“I think when I found the lump, that’s when it was more dramatic for me,” said Durden, a Freemont, Calif., native. “Mentally I was prepared for it, but I was probably in a little bit of denial too.”
After confiding her illness to family and friends, Durden prepared herself for the next step, chemotherapy. Two months after Durden was diagnosed, close friend Master Gunnery Sgt. Cheryl Gillon, G-3, decided she too would lose her hair. On May 6, Gillon raced in the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, “Race for the Cure” in Las Vegas, organized by a beneficial charity which raises money for breast cancer awareness, education, research, and support programs in the local area. To support her friend, and to raise money for the foundation, Gillon gave away the opportunity for contributors to shave her head.
“The timing got a little bit off because it was initially scheduled so that we’d be bald at the same time after I started my chemo treatment,” said Durden.
Personnel and students with Charlie Company, Marine Corps Communications-Electronics School supported the cause with a squad formation run and did their own fundraising. All together, more than $3,200 was raised for the foundation.
Durden also took part in the race. However, she opted to walk. Prior to her illness she participated in several marathons. Ironically, the blue-eyed Durden was given her diagnosis while raising funds for a leukemia marathon she was to participate in.
Durden underwent chemotherapy through intravenous injections every three weeks for four months and as a result lost her hair.
“I knew that was a 99 percent possibility, I just didn’t know when to expect it,” said Durden, mother of a 20-year-old son. “It was very dull and it had an unhealthy look to it. At first it was a few strands, but the second day after it started to fall out I was washing my hair and had a big blob of it in my hands.
After the third day, with only 1/3 of her hair left, Durden shaved her head.
“It was sad because I knew it was something that I had to go through,” said Durden, who opted not to wear a wig because of the heat.
Today, the lump in her breast is shrunk to the point where she can no longer feel it. Doctors will remove what is left in the upcoming months and say her hair will begin to grow back approximately three weeks from the last treatment as soon as the medications stop having an affect, although Durden has grown accustomed to her peach fuzz head. Now, she will undergo radiation therapy five days a week for six weeks and plans to hopefully maintain a regular work schedule.
“The biggest thing I encounter is ‘What did you do to your hair,’” said Durden with a smile. “I remember a recent encounter after I told him what was wrong, he asked, ‘You’re not going through this alone are you?’ I looked around the room full of Marines and I said, ‘I have all these people here.’ That’s the big thing; no matter what any Marine is going through we’re not alone.”
Throughout this whole tribulation, Durden was never worried whether she would be able to remain in the Corps, but she was worried about how effective she’d be as a Marine.
“I know I’m going to be cured,” she said. “In the meantime I’m worried about my [physical fitness tests] and doing Marine things that we’re expected to do as Marines.”
Despite her illness Durden exercises four to five days a week and works a normal schedule.
She has an awesome spirit,” said Gillon. “I don’t know how to describe it. She’s the most determined woman I’ve ever met. It makes me want to get up off the couch.”
Lance Cpl. Scott Ellison has known Durden since late 2004 and describes her as having a great deal of courage and defiance over the illness. He says she personifies the old Marine Corps saying, “If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
“It's one of those ‘bad things happen to good people’ deals,” said Ellison. “It's of course a random thing that is in no way preventable. Other than her hair falling out, you would have no idea anything was wrong with her. Somehow she saw through the negative and turned it all into positive energy. She still kept PT-ing once, sometimes twice a day. I don't even want to PT more than zero times a day.”
Durden insists on being open about her illness, but in doing so, provides the motivation needed for others who are stricken with the disease as well.
“I’ve talked to other people who are in the same situation and it’s given them strength,” said Durden. “People have told me it helps to know that someone is going through the same thing. I’m open about that, and the more I’m open then maybe it will help someone else.”
Looking back, this experience has been an ordeal that has yielded unexpected rewards. Going through an illness such as hers changes a person profoundly.
“I appreciate the relationships I have more so, especially people close to me,” said Durden. “I try to make sure they know they’re important and why. I wake up every morning and thank God I get another day.”
Durden is appreciative when acquaintances offer assistance, but it is the people she’s never met who offer help that amaze her.
“People are very supportive,” said Gillon, who exercises with Durden almost daily to train for upcoming marathons. “She has total strangers passing her notes telling her to keep the faith. It’s pretty amazing.”
“Thank you” is all Durden can say to people who contribute both monetarily to the foundation and with moral support as she greatly appreciates it.
“We’re always asking Marines for money and they’re always good causes,” said Durden. “With our cause, we had a couple of individuals that gave a couple hundred dollars. And that dollar donation is just as valuable as the $200 donation because everything is a sacrifice.
“I’d like everyone to know how grateful I am for their support, thoughts and prayers to help me get through this,” said Durden. “I couldn’t do this without them. There’s no way.”