Commanding Cancer

Coast Guard District 11 Newsby Petty Officer 2nd Class Pamela J. Boehalnd

Cmdr. Heather Kostecki is no stranger to disasters. Her 18-year Coast Guard career has been spent combating them. In the spring of 2010, she was a deputy incident commander for the largest oil spill in the nation’s history, the Deepwater Horizon spill. The same calm, take-charge attitude that helped lead the initial spill response allowed her take command of her own health and fight for her life after she was diagnosed with aggressive, malignant breast cancer.

Kostecki is the mother of two young girls. She is optimistic and good natured. She smiles a lot and radiates happiness. For two years, she has served as the planning chief for Coast Guard Sector San Francisco on Yerba Buena Island. Her office is scattered with family photos, plaques, toys and cartoons. Her short, salt-and-pepper hair looks more like a fashion statement than the result of chemotherapy. She recalled her journey through cancer with equal parts laughter and tears.

In August 2010, her doctor recommended for her to receive her first mammogram after turning 40, and she almost ignored that recommendation when her first referral wasn’t in TRICARE’s system.

“I almost said to myself ‘forget it,’ and waited until the next year,” said Kostecki.

However, she pursued the mammogram, and early detection and her proactive health care approach saved her life.

A week later, the doctor requested another mammogram and an ultrasound.

Kostecki wasn’t nervous at that point because she had some scar tissue from a previous surgery. It wasn’t until she had a biopsy did she start to think something was wrong.

“As I was lying on that uncomfortable biopsy table for three hours, there was a lot of whispering going on,” Kostecki said. “Then, when I got off the table, there was a lot of hugging going on. A lot of hugging of me. Then I thought, this isn’t good.”

A few more days went by until she received her diagnosis.

She had just finished up giving a presentation about Deepwater Horizon to the Military Officers’ Association when the doctor called to inform her that she had tested positive for an aggressive type of breast cancer known as human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 or HER2.

Kostecki laughed as she remembered how she had to hold herself together in the room full of officers after hearing the devastating news. She had to wait until after she was presented a plaque and bottle of wine and have her picture taken before she could leave to have her breakdown.

“After that I was pretty good,” said Kostecki. “I knew the Coast Guard was going to take care me, and that took a lot of pressure off.”

Kostecki also had a great support system, and had the help of her family, friends and coworkers to see her through the illness. She relied heavily on her Sector coworkers to help her with her work load. Her command granted her as much time off as she needed and two other officers/breast cancer survivors were available to arm her with information about doctors and procedures.

“Having information is probably what helped me to keep it together the most,” said Kostecki.

Kostecki started her chemotherapy in December and was determined to fight through the illness as quickly as possible. She endured six rounds of chemotherapy. She received an infusion of chemo drugs through a tube in her chest. Each session lasted more than five hours and occurred every three weeks. The treatment works by killing cells, not just the cancerous ones, but the cells in bone marrow, hair follicles and in the digestive tract. Some of the results of chemo include hair loss, nausea, diarrhea, anemia, fatigue and an increased the risk of infection. Patients are fortified with additional medications and steroids to repair chemo’s caustic effects.

She kept her spirits high by emailing her friends and family with funny stories about her treatments using the handle “Chemo Girl.”

“Great news!” wrote Chemo Girl. “I no longer have grey hair! Unfortunately, I have no other hair either.”

Her husband Ken, also a Coast Guard officer, said she has such a wonderful, strong spirit that she was able to fight through the pain and stay positive throughout her treatment.

“She could spin a dark subject and find humor in it,” he said.

The therapy kept Kostecki out of her office for three weeks of every month. She worked from home when she could, but the guilt of time away from her job still weighs on her. She said she often thought about the people in her department and worried that she couldn’t be there for them.

“I could deal with the cancer,” she said as she dabbed at tears with a tissue, “But it made me angry that I couldn’t be there for not just my family, but this Coast Guard family too.”

Both Kosteckis said that being Coast Guard officers made the whole process easier. The service not only provided the medical insurance and income, but it allowed them to build a support system throughout the country. They have friends in all the areas where they had been stationed, and once people heard that Kostecki was sick, the support came pouring in.

“I never had to ask for help, but it was offered from everywhere,” said Ken Kostecki.

Now, almost a year after being diagnosed, Kostecki is cancer free. Both of her breasts have been removed to eliminate the risk of breast cancer in the future. She is still on medication and has a few reconstructive surgeries planed. Doctors gave her a more than 95 percent survival rate for the next five years, and Kostecki remains optimistic about her chances.

She counsels newly diagnosed cancer patients and advises them to stay focused on their treatments and to make decisions based on research, the advice of other survivors, and their own gut instinct. She tells patients to question their insurance companies and find out to what they are entitled.

For Coast Guard members, entitlements include full health insurance coverage, but, as Kostecki discovered, TRICARE also paid for home help, a visiting nurse, plastic surgery and various specialists. When she was diagnosed, TRICARE assigned her a care specialist who advocated on her behalf to the insurance company. Whenever she wanted something, all she had to do was ask, and she said everything she asked for was provided, even a wig.

“I only wore the wig twice,” said Kostecki. “But I could get it, and that was amazing.”

She said there were little things that TRICARE helped her get, like a handicapped parking pass that made the whole experience easier.

Kostecki said, “I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone, but I wish everyone who has cancer could have my experience.”

Early detection saved Kostecki’s life, and she implores everybody to pursue all cancer screenings when recommended. She said she can only speculate as to what would have happened if she ignored her doctor’s recommendation for that first mammogram.

Kostecki took charge of her health care, sought out the guidance of other survivors, and learned to what she was entitled. She said it is important to ask for help when needed, and then, it is equally important to return the help when you can.

She said she has always been an optimistic person, and said the same calm demeanor that made her a strong leader during the Deepwater Horizon spill helped her cope with cancer.

Kostecki said, “My goal is to live another 60 years.”

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