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Face of Defense: Cancer Diagnosis Helps Airman Find Balance

By Air Force Tech. Sgt. Vanessa Kilmer
92nd Air Refueling Wing

FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash., Feb. 20, 2015 – Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Daphne Soto never meets a stranger, because each encounter opens a door to a potential new friend or to someone who just needs to talk. And she'll keep the door open for both.

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Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Daphne Soto spent 18 years of her career on the fast track until a cancer diagnosis forced her to find balance in her life. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Alexandre Montes

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

This 24-year Air Force veteran will weave a serpentine path through cubicles and offices just to say hello to every airman, regardless of rank. Her conversations are sprinkled with laughter and seasoned with southern flavor when she reveals her roots with the occasional use of the word "child."

For Soto, the 92nd Air Refueling Wing’s equal opportunity director here, it's not just part of her job. A self-proclaimed "sweet girl from South Carolina," she has always held tight to one goal from the moment she enlisted: to always give her personal best.

Soto said she knew her lofty goals would require more attention, and possibly sacrifices, but that she didn't recognize the magnitude of the impending imbalance. Her aspirations formed blinders that cloaked lost time with her family and shrouded symptoms as her body began to rebel against her.

Ambition Leads to More Responsibility

Early in her career, as a telephone switch operator and then as combat crew communications, her ambition was the ever-present shove toward more responsibility. "I wanted to be the chief master sergeant of the Air Force," she said. "I think everyone's had that little moment."

But Soto's appetite for responsibility left her family hungry for her presence back home.

As a mother of three and wife of an active-duty crew chief, Soto said, she worked 12-hour days that didn't end when she returned home. She would bring work home with her and would take calls on her home phone, even late in the evening. This was when cellphones were new, she noted.

"I've always tried to be a good mom and a good wife and a great airman," she said. "But I soared at a cost, … because I sacrificed all of that precious family time. I was on every [temporary duty assignment]; I never turned down an opportunity. There was a time that my husband and I weren't even seeing each other. I would kiss my kids goodnight, read a quick bedtime story and then get right back on the phone."

Hectic Cycle Took a Toll

Soto was on that cycle for almost 18 years, which she admitted took a toll on her as well.

"When you're used to being that go-to person and having to live up to that expectation, and not being able to say no, it takes a lot," she said. "And then you find yourself saying, 'You've got to say no.'"

Soto said she justified this brutal schedule because she saw it as her purpose -- a part of her legacy.

"I thought I was being a role model to my children and making my husband proud being that breadwinner," she said. "So you lie to yourself. You lie to yourself to say it's all worth it in the end. You convince yourself that it's going to justify it all once you hit that goal."

For almost 20 years, Soto charged through, made rank, earned more awards and accolades, with the support of her husband, Air Force Master Sgt. Damon Soto, pushing her forward.

Every extra hour his wife put in meant an extra hour away from him, but he accepted the sacrifice "because I love her, and that's what she wanted," he said. "And she's way smarter than I am."

Partnership Fueled Difficult Balance

He acknowledged that it was difficult to balance school, work and children, but he said their partnership kept them going.

"When her schedule was hard, I picked up as much slack as I could, and vice versa," he said. "My thought was if we didn't, everything would fail."

It was 2010 when life for Soto changed. In two months, she had inexplicably lost weight -- down from a size 6 to a size 00.

For about two years, Soto said, she had noticed changes in her body -- nothing to raise alarm, but the weight loss began to bring everything into focus. She advocated for a referral to see a doctor who would be able to diagnose her symptoms.

After Soto's doctor heard about her weight loss, he waived his three-month wait list and agreed to see her within the week. It was just 30 minutes between the beginning of the examination and the diagnosis she had begun to expect: cancer.

Overwhelming Weight of Diagnosis

Soto described driving home from the appointment and pulling over because she was overwhelmed with the weight of the diagnosis and blinded by uncontrollable tears. She said she distinctly remembers the primal urge to talk to her mother.

"My mother said, 'It's going to be OK. We're going to get through it,'” Soto said. “And you know, I didn't really have a choice, because I had three kids and a husband to worry about."

For Soto, whose life and career had been going at full-tilt for more than two decades, everything suddenly stopped, and her life aligned itself along a completely unexpected trajectory.

After her diagnosis, Soto said, she had a crash course in cancer. Because of the aggressiveness of the disease, she had to make very quick decisions to determine the course of her treatment and elected to undergo two invasive surgeries.

Before her diagnosis, Soto was chosen as the primary organizer for her career field's upcoming utilization and training workshop, in which attendees develop all of the equal opportunity career field's training requirements.

A Realization During Convalescence

After her second surgery, Soto was confined to her home for six weeks, facing a six-month convalescent period and completely dependent on Damon. During that time, she said, she came to a powerful realization: The workshop was held on schedule, and her career field's training curriculum was developed -- without her. The mission went on.

"I think that's when it all started coming together," she said. "I said, ‘I have to shift my priorities, and it's OK to take care of me.’"

Upon returning to work, Soto said, she had a new perspective. She said she found a new rhythm and started feeling more effective at a slower pace.

The slower pace gave her time to think things through and be clearer with expectations. It also gave her the confidence to say no, instead of trying to complete the task no matter the cost, she said.

"It's OK to say no,” she added. “It's OK to say, 'I can't do it all.’ 'I can't' is not a bad part of your vocabulary, unless you are completely giving up, and I wasn't doing that."

Value in Helping Others

Her work improved because of her honest communication, Soto said, and she found that by taking care of herself, she saw more value in taking care of others.

"I was so worried about my career, [but] what was I doing for others?" she said. "And now I realize I don't have to supervise a soul. It's the Air Force's airmen. They are all my airmen."

These connections, Soto said, helped her embrace and understand the importance of "Mission First, People Always."

"I'm not here just to transition an individual to the next rank,” she said. “I'm here to transition them to things that are going to be … throughout life."

With only a few months left until retirement, Soto said, although she has Florida and her dream tea shop in her sights, she is still focused on her airmen. "I don't believe in ‘ROAD,’” she said, using a derisive acronym that stands for “retired on active duty.”

"I will work until that last duty day, even if that is just walking around and saying hello to every airman,” she added. “I will do my personal best. That is my goal with leaving the Air Force and living life."


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