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Wing member proves resilient in face of cancer

Liz Morris, 419th Fighter Wing director of staff

Liz Morris, 419th Fighter Wing director of staff (U.S. Air Force photo)

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah – When Liz Morris, 419th Fighter Wing director of staff, got news that she had an aggressive form of breast cancer in April 2018, she shut out the negative thoughts and chose to be brave.

Morris recalls showing no emotion when faced with the pathology report. After discovering a lump in her breast, she had an idea of what the diagnosis would be and had already formed a strategy to stay positive.

“I told the doctor not to tell me what stage cancer it was, because I knew that whatever it was, I could get through it,” Morris said. “People put so much stock in the stage. I just didn’t want to know.”

Morris’ resolution to stay positive continued through the healing process, which included five months of initial chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy, one month of radiation, and another six months of oral chemotherapy – more than a year of treatment overall.

“I choose to live and have a good outlook on this,” Morris remembers telling herself. “The mind is powerful and it can play tricks on you. But having a positive mindset helps in the healing.”

That’s why she chose to not browse the internet for stories from other cancer patients, and to lean on her family and friends rather than support groups. Whenever someone asked how she was doing, she gave a thumbs up. Even doctors and nurses asked whether her positive attitude was a cover-up for the pain.

“But no, I just kept saying it’s not as bad as I thought it would be,” she said. “I kept reminding myself that the pain is only temporary and that today I feel better than yesterday.”

Morris refused to stay in bed, instead opting for the couch with a laptop at the ready, where she remained active at work thanks to a medical telework arrangement. She recalls taking only one sick day after a particularly difficult round of chemo. She said working through her treatments helped her maintain a sense of purpose and normalcy.  

But she also wanted to stay strong for her two college-age daughters.

“I didn’t want my kids to be afraid, because cancer is scary as it is,” she said. “I wanted them to see me still enjoying life. I even made jokes when I came out of surgery to keep things light. When I started losing hair, my daughter buzzed a smiley face on top of my head.”

Morris chose to rock the bald look for a while, but eventually acquired a wig to protect her head during Utah’s cold winter months.

She said it helped to have a support system in her husband, daughters, and friends who visited her or sent encouraging emails. She also drew from the toughness she developed during her 23 years of service in the Air Force, retiring as a chief master sergeant and having served as command chief in the 419th FW.

With the cancer now in remission, Morris feels hopeful for the future.

“The experience taught me to appreciate every day with my family,” she said. “I don’t take things for granted, and I appreciate everyone and everything more.”