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Battling Cancer in Combat Boots

A depiction of the journey Capt. Kathryn Nay, the 140th Wing executive officer for the Colorado Air National Guard, took after receiving her stage 3 breast cancer diagnosis.

A depiction of the journey Capt. Kathryn Nay, the 140th Wing executive officer for the Colorado Air National Guard, took after receiving her stage 3 breast cancer diagnosis. Nay received the diagnosis in December 2019, only two months after returning home from her deployment in Afghanistan. (U.S. Space Force photo illustration by Senior Airman Danielle McBride)


While deployed overseas, brave military members fight every day and night, harder than they have ever had to before, with the thought of returning home to their families constantly running through their minds. Service members look forward to the day they come home to decompress from the combat zone they've grown used to. Little did one deployed captain know, greater battles awaited her return.

Capt. Kathryn Nay, a defender currently assigned to the 140th Wing as the executive officer for the Colorado Air National Guard, was only 37 years old when she was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. It was December of 2019, two short months after returning home from her deployment to Afghanistan.

“I was pretty numb when I found out,” said Nay. “Going from commanding forces on a flight line during active rocket attacks to finding out I had cancer immediately when I returned was just such a shock, and I had no idea what was available to help me at the time.”

Still being in her combat mode, Nay didn't have time to decompress from her deployment before receiving the news, and she didn't fully understand the resources available to her. Luckily, Nay’s leadership and her National Guard family knew exactly what to do to help her through her journey. They immediately jumped into action and started educating her on the benefits she was entitled to as a Guardsman returning from deployment.

“I had very few day-to-day challenges in terms of continuing to serve and feeling like a productive member of my unit,” said Nay. “Luckily, my leadership was very flexible with meeting me where I needed to be met. They really knew my background, and they knew what opportunities I had and, they never once made my illness a deciding factor for any of those opportunities.”

The biggest struggle for Nay was dealing with insurance and her benefits. Because she was ill, TRICARE gave her a temporary medical continuation of coverage every 30 days to cover her treatment. Every time the order expired, she was put back into drill status and lost all her benefits until she received another order.

“Because I would continuously be put back into drill status, I had a few delays in treatment,” said Nay. “I’m very grateful that I have healthcare, but it is also a struggle navigating all those systems while already being sick. As Guardsman, we come back from these deployments, and our benefits are very dependent on the status that we are in, which is key to our healthcare.”

Because Nay is not an active Guardsman, the first few weeks she was home from deployment, she had no idea how to navigate a military treatment facility on an installation. When calling to book her very first appointment with her Primary Care Manager, the Airman helping her out over the phone explained that her PCM was booked for quite a few weeks.

Nay was devastated, waiting weeks for an appointment wasn't going to work for her, and the Airman on the phone could sense that she did not have the time to wait. He took an extra step in letting her know that she could see the Women’s Healthcare practitioner if she came in that day, instead of waiting for an appointment.

“I do not know who that Airman is, but I think about him all the time,” said Nay. “Just that one little extra step he took to take care of me, impacted my entire life in such a way I can’t describe. The doctors told me if I waited any longer to get seen, it was highly likely to spread to another area, and I would've been stage 4, which is essentially terminal. What this Airman did by taking that one extra step could’ve changed my entire life.”

Taking that small, extra, step out of his day could have inherently saved Nay’s life, whether that Airman knew it or not. It's the little things, like simply helping others, that could have a profound impact on someone’s life, more than one could ever imagine.

“The one thing I think is the most important in life is to take care of yourself and others,” Nay said. “I am so grateful for everyone that has helped me through my journey. We are all in the military, but at the end of the day, we are all human. [Remember to] do those little things to help others, because you never know the impact you could have on that person’s life.”

Nay’s strength and determination haven't allowed cancer to bring her spirits down, and although treatment is ongoing for Nay, she continues to proudly serve every day.

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