WüRZBURG, Germany — The moment cancer entered her life, Staff Sgt. Scarlet King felt, if anything, more embarrassment than pain.
During field maneuvers with her troop from the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Polk, La., one January day in 2002, King jumped out of the back of a Humvee and fell on her backside.
The fall left an ugly bruise on her tailbone. The 12-year veteran soldier simply ignored it.
Except the bruise did not go away. Three months later she reluctantly visited a doctor. After viewing X-rays, he delivered the harsh diagnosis: a malignant tumor had wrapped itself around the lower end of her spinal cord. She risked paralysis, or worse.
“I wasn’t expecting it at all,” King, a career counselor who is now with the 1st Infantry Division in Würzburg, recalled recently. “I felt like I was in a fog. You never think about that kind of stuff. Nobody in my family had ever had cancer.”
Not much about the slight, soft-spoken redhead suggests the toughness inside. She grew up in Seaside, Calif., where her adoptive father was a drill sergeant who would retire as a command sergeant major.
King became a single mother at 16. Ten years later, she had three little boys and quit her job as a hairdresser to join the Army in hopes of giving them a better future.
“I was watching a ‘Be All You Can Be’ commercial,” she said. “The next thing I knew, I enlisted.”
Juggling the demands of soldiering and motherhood while working toward a college degree in her “spare” time was challenging, to say the least, especially when she served a year in Korea. But she thrived on the structure of Army life, she said.
“It’s been hard at times,” King said. “But if I can do it, anyone can.”
Never was it harder than after her cancer diagnosis. Within a month, she took a medical transfer from Fort Polk to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, so she could get treatment at Brooke Army Medical Center, one of the Army’s premier hospitals. Her mother, Honey Hewlett — who had moved in with King in 2001 after the death of Hewlett’s husband — followed soon afterwards.
For nine months, she endured twice-weekly chemotherapy treatments that left her nauseous and vomiting. Her sons and her mother helped as much as they could.
“She would just collapse from exhaustion,” Hewlett said in a phone interview from her home in San Antonio. “She was pretty much the strong, silent type … . She didn’t want to worry me, so she didn’t share a lot.”
King kept up her duties as a career counselor, helping to re-enlist soldiers. She viewed work as a critical part of her therapy. Her mother says she put in evenings and weekends, hitting 200 percent of her re-enlistment quota during her illness.
“I still made mission, still took care of my soldiers,” King said. “There were very few people who knew what I was going through.”
The treatments shrank the tumor, but her legs continued to ache from pressure on her sciatic nerve. In 2003, her doctors decided to operate in spite of the danger of paralysis. They inserted four titanium bolts and eight drops of synthetic bone (at $5,000 per drop). The surgery succeeded, but she had to stay in bed during a long recovery. Her sons arranged to sit up with her around the clock.
“When this happened, it grounded me,” King recalled. “My youngest [son] said, ‘Mom, you’ve been taking care of us all your life. Now it’s our turn.’”
In late August 2003, she learned her cancer was in remission. But the roller-coaster wasn’t over yet. The next day, Hewlett visited a doctor about a large growth on her elbow she thought was bursitis.
It turned out to be a cancerous tumor that required immediate, aggressive treatment. Overnight, the patient became a caregiver — though a wiser one, because of her own experience. Now Hewlett, too, is in remission.
Mother and daughter now both get annual checkups. They are cautious but optimistic that they’ve beaten the dreaded disease. And both sing the praises of military medicine.
King said she used to be a driven, Type A personality. That’s changed.
“I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore,” she said. “You don’t know if you’re going to have a tomorrow. . . You realize how important family is, how fragile life is.”
She credits the Army with, quite literally, saving her life.
“Going to work is what kept me going,” she said. “I’m glad the Army let me stay. Who better to sell the Army than someone who loves it?”