WASHINGTON – People often look at Capt. Lori Templeton weird when she shares how cancer saved her life. With more than 4,000 people in the U.S. being diagnosed with the disease every day, it is hard for them to equate how the often-devastating affliction could benefit anyone.
As a single mother, former educator and Army officer serving as commander of the 340th Brigade Support Battalion Headquarters Service Company - 1st detachment, California National Guard, Templeton chose to look beyond her ailment. She said the diagnosis of stage three cancer in 2016 forced her to step back and find the balance that she so desperately needed in life.
Determined to Serve
Since a young age, Templeton maintained an enduring passion for military service. At 17 years old, she was determined to join the Air Force but got scared. She walked away days before her final military entrance processing station evaluation. The decision was one she regretted for many years.
Templeton eventually got married, gave birth and became a stay-at-home mom. After her divorce, she continued raising her kids alone, all while working a full-time job and taking evening college classes. For many years, she served as a junior high school teacher and dedicated additional hours to assist at-risk youth.
Successful in her own right, her desire to serve in the military never diminished, she said.
“I think the thing that held me back as a mom was not wanting to sign a paper that indicated where my kids would go in the event that something happened to me,” she explained.
At 39 years old, though, she had a second chance. Two of her kids were out of the house and the third was finishing high school. She submitted commissioning paperwork to join the National Guard. She went to Fort Jackson, S.C., for basic training, then Fort Benning, Ga., for officer candidate school, and finally to Fort Jackson for the basic officer leader course.
“I had some amazing experiences (during training). I had worked my way up to this level of maturity, confidence and achievement before I (joined the Army),” she said. “As a single mom, I dug myself out of poverty and put myself through school. I am a domestic violence survivor – my ex-husband was abusive.”
OCS was one of the hardest things Templeton had ever completed, she said. During training, she was able to recall her complicated past, which allowed her to put things into perspective and made the experience more comfortable. She returned to California a changed woman.
“I was proud of the uniform I wore. The military provided a sense of family that went beyond my organic family,” she said. “I was more outwardly focused, and definitely more driven.”
Upon her return, she worked at the Oakland Military Institute as a training and assessment counseling officer.
Too Busy for Cancer
In the year of her diagnosis, Templeton’s Army and civilian careers were in full swing. As a first lieutenant, she was selected to command the 349th Quartermaster Company, which had just come back from a long and challenging deployment.
“I was going 150 miles an hour,” she said. “I spent two hours in the gym every day. I was hard-charging when it came to running the company. I (also) had another full-time job, so I was working probably 60-plus hours a week, trying to be everything.”
Through all the controlled chaos, Templeton found success, or so she thought. At the time, she was in the best shape of her life. The company continued to excel and was growing closer as a family.
Nevertheless, sustaining this level of performance started to take a toll, which forced her to make sacrifices, she said. “I let my family kind of go. I was so focused on (my Army career), and I didn't realize that it was happening.”
Templeton then stopped taking care of her body, which included making annual breast cancer screening appointments.
“I didn't get a mammogram for two years,” she said. “I knew I had a lump. In my head, I didn’t have time for it – I didn't have time to get sick. I was so focused on everyone else that I didn’t take care of me.”
Templeton’s longtime friend recognized she was delinquent on her annual breast exams. She called the busy lieutenant every month, for six months straight, and insisted she get checked out.
“I would get angry at her,” Templeton shared. “Sometimes, I wouldn’t answer her phone calls. Or I would say, ‘fine,’ to get her to leave me alone. She persisted to the point where I finally said, ‘I’ll go get it checked just to get you to shut up.’”
After the initial exam, doctors immediately moved her to another room for additional testing.
“The technician came back into the room, and he had this sober look,” she said. “I was already irritated. In my mind, I took time out of my busy day to deal with this. I was so far removed from reality.”
The technician broke the news that they had found a mass and wanted to perform a biopsy. She assumed it was the scar tissue from breast augmentation surgery she had 10 years prior. In her mind, this whole doctor’s visit was a colossal waste of her valuable time.
Stubborn in her own right, she said that she didn't have time for the test and was ready to walk out the door. Recognizing that she might not return, the doctor’s office shifted around their busy schedule to get her the biopsy.
“I had let myself go. I chose not to think about (the lump in my breast) because it wasn't going to be on my radar. I’ve gone through a lot of hard times, and I finally was in a place in life where I felt successful,” she said. “I didn't see how I was really just killing myself.”
Days later, Templeton had already re-engaged into her busy routine. Then, on April 7, her phone rang. It was her physician requesting her to come in.
“I drove (to the doctors) very frustrated,” she said. “In my mind, they were wasting my time again by having me come down and review a piece of paper.”
She was entrenched in a phone call with her command sergeant major as she walked in the waiting room. Determined to finish her conversation, she told the doctor to wait. “What caught my attention is when the doctor said, ‘Go ahead and finish your call.’”
The two of them went back to the exam room as Templeton ended the call. She gave her doctor a thumbs up, as if to say, “I'm sure everything is satisfactory, right?”
“She just looked at me and tears started coming down her face when she said, ‘No, you have cancer,’” Templeton recalled.
Derailed, Templeton’s mind went numb. The doctor explained that she had stage three lymphoma and needed to go in for surgery as soon as possible. Then reality set in. She came alone to the doctor’s office and was about an hour away from home. She resorted to humor to cope with the alarming news.
“So, I'm just going to take me and my cancer, get in the elevator and go home?” she asked, jokingly. The doctor acknowledged the assessment and passed along the contact information for a highly recommended surgical oncologist.
Keeping her composure, the hard-charging lieutenant walked out of the office and got into her car. As she closed the door, she immediately broke down, sobbing. When the emotions subsided, she called her first sergeant and laid everything on the table.
“In his great first sergeant wisdom, he gave me the compassion I needed. He asked me where I was and if I could drive,” she said.
“(Up until that point), I had handled everything else I came up against, and sitting in the car crying wasn’t going to do anything for me,” she continued. “This was just like anything else I had tackled in my life. That realization and the conversation with an NCO battle buddy gave me my strength and confidence back.”
Two days later, Templeton was meeting the oncologist for her first consultation. The day after that, she went through her drill weekend as if nothing happened. She did, however, share her prognosis with a key group of friends. In her mind, she said she wasn’t going to allow “this invader” to control any aspect of her life.
She later met with the commander, who had no choice but to pull the lieutenant out of her leadership position. “At that time, I saw it as an attack,” Templeton shared. “My command became everything I was. I was going to try to act like nothing was happening, instead of dealing with it in a healthy way.
“In her maturity and care for me, my commander saw the big picture,” she also observed. “She knew I would never have been able to recover if I stayed in that position. It was hard for me at the time because I didn’t see it that way.”
Standing up to Cancer
Templeton waited as long as she could before sharing her diagnosis with family.
“I couldn’t tell them because I knew how it would disrupt their lives, and I didn't want to do that,” she said. “As it turned out, they rallied around me like nobody’s business. I never went to one appointment alone (and) they lived four to five hours away. It was humbling, and I was honored because I didn’t think I deserved the call to action that I got.”
Leading up to her first surgery, Templeton went through a flurry of testing and administrative processes. In the end, the hardest part was meeting with her kids before the treatment that would take most of her breast and several lymph nodes.
“I had to give them my will and my insurance information,” she said, as her voice quivered with emotion. “If I did not come out of surgery or the treatment didn’t work … I shared what I wanted them to be (in life).”
For the first time, Templeton realized how important it was to cherish life. Ultimately, “every moment is a gift,” she said, and the time had come to be thankful for every gift she had received thus far.
About a month after her surgery, she started her six-month regimen of chemotherapy treatments. Through it all, she stayed positive and strived to stay connected to her Soldier family. When chemo ended, neuropathy set in, causing her to lose feeling in her hands and feet.
Templeton remained resilient, wanting nothing more than to get back to the life she once had. After a month of radiation treatment and final reconstructive surgery, she was cleared and put on her uniform once again.
It took her more than a year to defeat cancer. As a survivor, she adorned her motorcycle with a breast cancer awareness ribbon. It is her way to remind other women to get tested annually, she said.
“Cancer saved my life,” she reasserted. “It forced me to stop and think about what matters. Now, I get to recreate myself.”
After treatment, Templeton returned as the deputy commander of the Soldiers Incentive Assistance Center, working with the National Guard Bureau and the California Guard to refund recouped bonus money for Soldiers. She later stepped away from this position and started working as a liaison officer for “Work for Warriors,” a state and federally funded nonprofit that helps veterans and transitioning members find employment. As an Army captain, she is now 18 months into her second command.
“I absolutely love it, but I’m a different leader now,” she said. “I lead with my heart. I still go 150 miles an hour at times, but I am more balanced these days.”
In the end, cancer taught her the importance of family, she said. Closer to her kids than ever before, she remains eternally grateful that her family stopped everything in their lives just to give her some time to rebuild and continue to live.
“Accepting love from others and admitting you need help was the hardest thing for me to do by far,” she said. “As Soldiers, we are all strong, but are we strong enough to let people in (during times of need)?
“Letting people in is the scariest thing out there,” she concluded. “It can be scarier than cancer. (Soldiers) don’t have to fight alone. They don’t have to rub dirt (on their ailment) and move on. It’s OK to get help.”