The day the towers fell is the same day that Sarah Marie Case signed her contract to serve her country in the military.
Then only 19 years old, Case was warned by her recruiter that day that she would most likely be deployed. “My dad looked at me and said, ‘Well that’s why you join,'” Case remembers. After signing on the dotted line of an eight year contract and leaving for boot camp, she got the call that her father, who had been diagnosed with prostrate cancer a few months prior, had taken a turn for the worse.
Case returned home and was initially told that her father would have months left to live. But only seven days later, he passed away at home, surrounded by his family. After his death, Case says she felt determined to finish her training, certain it was what her father would have wanted her to do. She graduated at the top of her class and was deployed to Iraq from 2003 to 2004, where she worked as a gunner.
And there’s more.
While at war, Case experienced things many of us can’t even fathom — like the death of one of her best friends, Michelle Witmer, the first Wisconsin National Guard’s woman to ever be killed in combat — and putting her life in danger to bring toys and clothes to children with special needs who had been abandoned from war in an orphanage. When she returned home, she struggled with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of all that she endured.
Case explains to me that she can’t talk about some of the things she saw, but that she is grateful for her time in the service because it has taught her to appreciate the simplest of things we have in America, such as toilet paper and even ice. “Every day my service there grounds me and humbles me and makes me so grateful for everything I have,” she says.
After an honorable discharge from the military, Case learned coping mechanisms to manage her PTSD and welcomed a son, Elijah Daniel, with her fiancé, Nick. Case thought her life was finally going to settle down.
Until one day, when Elijah was 2 months old, Case felt a lump in her breast while nursing him.
She mistakenly thought the lump was simply due to breastfeeding, even when her supply on her left side dried up and nursing became too painful. It took six more months and the pain extending to her armpit for Case to finally see a doctor — and even then, they told her that at 26, she was far too young to need a mammogram.
But Case begged them to test her, insisting that she knew something was wrong. When they did perform the mammogram, she was immediately rushed for an ultrasound and a biopsy. On June 11, 2011, while nursing her son, Case got the call that she had been dreading: Stage 3B Invasive Breast Cancer, which had also spread to her lymph nodes.
“I looked down at my son and just froze,” Case remembers. “They were going over a tentative plan and all I could do is think of my son. He needed me. How could this be. I’m so young. Why me?”
Because of the aggressiveness of the cancer, Case had to start an intense form of chemotherapy immediately. She was told it would cause her hair to fall out in 7-10 days, so her family and friends rallied together to throw Case and Nick a beautiful backyard wedding while she still had hair. “I’m forever grateful for all the hard work they put into making that day magical in such a short period of time,” says Case.
A few days after the wedding, Case’s son pulled her hair right out off of her head and she and her husband started the long and grueling road through cancer by shaving their heads together. Over the next two years, Case would endure over 30 treatments with three different kinds of chemo, a mastectomy of her left breast, a lymph node dissection, 35 treatments of daily radiation and four more surgeries.
“My husband and I looked at it all and with our little baby, we knew I had to just treat it now aggressively and deal with whatever was to come down the road,” Case says. “I wanted my son to know me, I wanted him to remember his Mommy.”
Because she started treatment so quickly and aggressively, Case was not given the chance to harvest any eggs before her chemo, so she faced the fact that she would be infertile. She drew strength from the memories of her father, who began every day with the words, “It’s a great day to be alive!”
“He would make us yell at the top of our lungs every morning,” Case says. “Which, as teenagers, you can imagine how thrilled we were about this at 6 AM. But it was a daily thing and it has been the motto of my life ever since.”
At a routine CT scan in March of 2016 — which requires a pregnancy test beforehand — Case was shocked to discover that she was four weeks pregnant. She and her husband, along with now big brother Elijah, were overjoyed at what they call their “beautiful miracle.”
During her pregnancy, Case connected with a mother in the area, who reached out to another mother who she thought might be willing to help Case.
For Caitlin Dowden, 27, the decision to help the veteran mom was a no-brainer. The mom of three explains that she had a natural surplus of milk with each of her children and had been forced to either discard thousands of ounces of milk (yes, really) or donate the milk when she could.
“Since I could help in providing a baby with the nourishment of my breast milk in milk I may not have used — why not! ” says Dowden. “I instantly felt for Sarah and all she had been through, both the positives and negatives.”
Case and Dowden met up before the baby was born so that Case was stocked and ready with breast milk at the hospital. When little Elliana was born, dad was able to give her first feed of the donated milk, a moment captured by photographer Nicole Streeter.
Mom and dad happily report that Elliana loves her milk and is eating “like crazy” (not to mention growing rapidly, putting on a half of a pound in her first week). “It fills me with happiness that she is getting the best possible nutrients and her life is starting with such an amazing act of kindness,” says Case.
Dowden plans on donating milk for as long as she is able and the new family of four is simply enjoying their time together, watching little Elliana grow and thrive.
Now four years in remission, Case will continue to get checked every six months and although she says that she feels some fear and anxiety about the cancer returning again, since she was diagnosed when her first son was a baby, she is focusing on enjoying her family and the incredible blessings she feels she has received.
“We may not have fancy cars or a big savings but we know how rich we are with the love and health we have,” says Case. “We have seen what could have been and it gently reminds us everyday to hold this moment dear, to make the best of it and to relish in the magical sometimes wrenched but always incredible journey of life. We are in a simple, peaceful, repetitive chapter in our life and it couldn’t be more perfect for us. We are blessed — it’s a GREAT day to be ALIVE.”