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Pregnancy saves Airman’s life

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Staff Sgt. Jacquelyn Combs, 21st Force Support Squadron NCO in charge of customer support at the Military Personnel Section, jokes with a coworker at the Military Personnel Section on Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., Nov. 14, 2016. Combs was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease while at her first base and diagnosed with cancer at her second base, but didn’t let either of them stop her from doing her best. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Rose Gudex)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Staff Sgt. Jacquelyn Combs, 21st Force Support Squadron NCO in charge of customer support at the Military Personnel Section, jokes with a coworker at the Military Personnel Section on Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., Nov. 14, 2016. Combs was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease while at her first base and diagnosed with cancer at her second base, but didn’t let either of them stop her from doing her best. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Rose Gudex)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo -- Rare disease? Check. Cancer? Check. Excuses? Nope.

Staff Sgt. Jacquelyn Combs, 21st Force Support Squadron NCO in charge of customer support at the Military Personnel Section here, had more than her share of adversity to battle within her almost decade in the Air Force, but she comes back stronger every time she gets knocked down.

While stationed at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, Combs was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at the age of 21. She said it was an unexpected, painful experience.

“I thought that my appendix had burst, so I drove myself to the hospital and thought I was going to get into a car wreck,” she said. “I had to stop and squeeze the steering wheel so I wouldn’t drive off the side of the road.”

The pain doesn’t really go away and feels like being in labor, Combs said. The uncommon disease is becoming more prevalent and can be regulated with medication, but is also based on a specific diet, depending on the individual. Combs said her body doesn’t function well on healthy food and does better with less healthy options.

“So pizza is really my best friend,” she said. “If I were to eat apples, the acidity and what it does to my body as opposed to someone else’s body is very different.”

Not long after being diagnosed, Combs deployed to a two-person military personnel flight. The combination of medication and learning to control her diet allowed her to get her Crohn’s under control. She said it’s extremely important to know which food items cause flares and which ones help. For example, whenever Combs has a flare, the first food she goes to is potatoes because they help her body regain its balance.

“It can be a difficult thing to live with,” she said. “It’s a chronic illness for a reason. I may have a smile on my face, but the majority of the time my body is in pain.”

After becoming more comfortable with how her body reacted to the rare disease, Combs and her family moved to Peterson AFB, Colorado, in 2014. Part way through the year, she started rapidly losing a lot of weight and noticed her hair falling out. Soon, every time she leaned over at work it caused pain and she felt a poking sensation under her ribcage. At first the just thought it was stress.

“I would joke about it because I thought it was a baby arm,” Combs said. “It felt like a baby arm when you’re pregnant. It wasn’t. It was tumors.”

She got increasingly more exhausted and eventually stopped eating because it caused extreme pain. She discussed her symptoms with her father and was convinced to see a doctor. She said everything progressed quickly after an X-ray revealed a mass, and then a biopsy revealed what the doctors called Desmoid Fibromatosis Tumors.

She had four tumors about the size of softballs that would jump sporadically throughout her body. Combs said that caused her organs and body to begin shutting down. That specific type of tumor only effects four out of every 1 million people, so Combs became a study case.

Doctors in Denver conducted tests and research because it’s so uncommon. When it came time to remove the tumors, the doctor had only operated on one other person with the same condition.

“I was actually really excited about going into surgery because then all my pain would stop once they removed the tumors,” Combs said.

With everything going on, she remained positive and made jokes about her condition. At the time, Combs had two children and said the thought of not being there for them was scary, but being negative “only makes it worse quicker.”

Of the four tumors she had, only two were removed.

After the surgery, Combs expected to be treated with chemotherapy and radiation, however something changed. Two weeks later she went in for an appointment and doctors told her she was pregnant, which meant her treatment wasn’t an option. What Combs called a miracle determined the treatment wouldn’t be necessary anymore.

“Once I got pregnant, all my symptoms stopped,” she said. “All my organs were shutting down, my hair was falling out, but once I got pregnant with her, everything stopped. …It was my miracle child.”

Symptoms of cancer went away and she began to feel better. Combs said she began going to prenatal appointments while she still had a drainage tube and a bag sticking out of side from the surgery. Her baby was born in November 2015 and life couldn’t be better for the happy family of five.

Family and leadership both helped her battle through the cards life dealt Combs, who said her job is to not only be an Airman, but the best mom and wife she can be. At her lowest lows, they helped her focus on the next step and keep her eye on the end goal.

Today Combs has some “pretty awesome scars” and follows up with her doctors every six months to keep an eye on the two tumors that weren’t removed.

“When I say I have Crohn’s disease or I had this soft-tissue cancer, people look at (me) differently,” she said. “It’s not that I’m sick. It’s just that my body is different, so I have things that I have to do to take care of it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do my job.”

Combs said anyone going through a stressful situation should focus on something they wholeheartedly believe in to make the challenge easier. The positivity and optimism she exudes sets an example of service before self to everyone around her.
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