Maj. Melissa Wright began her day like many moms. She got her kids ready for school and arrived to work by 7:30 a.m. She spent her lunch working out with her shop, completed her daily Marine Corps tasks, and then dismissed her Marines for the evening. Wright then returned home to cook dinner and spend time with her family. When she crawled into bed at night, she knew what to expect the next day. That comfortable lifestyle came to a screeching halt when Wright got news that flipped her whole world upside down.
Wright had just returned from a deployment to Afghanistan with Combined Joint Task Force 82. Shortly after her homecoming, she received news that she was pregnant. Her husband’s, her stepchildren’s, and her own joy was short-lived, however, because a few weeks later, an ultrasound revealed she had lost the baby. Wright’s body thought she was still pregnant and continued to make hormones until she went through a procedure to return her body to normal. But Wright’s body was far from normal. While in the shower one night, Wright had a random thought to do a self-breast exam.
“All of a sudden in my right breast, I felt a giant lump,” Wright said. “It was the size of a giant chocolate Cadbury egg — that is what I thought immediately.”
The next week Wright went to the Naval Health Clinic in Cherry Point, N.C. The doctors were concerned and sent her to see multiple doctors over the next month and a half.
On April 9, 2009, Wright received news that drastically changed her world.
“I found out I had a very aggressive form of breast cancer and it’s something they call Estrogen-positive,” Wright said. “Because I was pregnant, the tumor grew from very small to very large in a short period of time. Doctors told me I most likely would have died after giving birth. I looked at that, I guess, as a mixed blessing,” Wright said.
During the next 15 months, Wright endured countless sessions of chemotherapy, surgeries, and radiation. She was forced to adapt to a new routine.
Wright went through chemo treatment on Monday, was nauseous and bedridden for the rest of the week, and returned to work early in the morning the following Monday. She then worked for the next two weeks before the process began again.
Wright remembers the feelings of nausea, the burning chemicals running through her body, and the constant pain. The radiation caused all of her hair to fall out and she had no eyebrows. She kept up the Marine Corps standard bought wigs to stay in regulation. Wright said she felt very lucky to have the support from her Marines during this rough time in her life.
Marines from her shop would call and text Wright to ask if she needed anything and to check up on her. Staff Sgt. Zane L. Perry, a Marine who took over for Wright when she was away from work, says he saw a lot of ambition from her. Her positive attitude raised the spirits of the shop greatly.
“I think the cancer made her stronger,” Perry said. “She never showed weakness and I knew she was tired from all the chemo, but you could never see it at work. Her determination to get better was such an eye-opener.”
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After six months of treatment, the chemo shrunk the tumor but Wright still had to undergo a mastectomy. The following spring, she went through radiation treatment. The endless treatments and surgeries left her body and spirit beaten down. She wouldn’t have been able to fight as hard as she did without the support from her family. While keeping the strength and tenacity of a Marine, Wright was able to power through her treatments.
“It was very painful, “ Wright said. “I had so much blood drawn and chemicals injected that I had to have a port surgically placed in my upper chest, instead of needles going into my arms. I looked like a Borg from Star Trek with it in my chest.”
In order for her skin to stretch for future reconstruction surgeries, Wright had to get saline injections into her right chest. She said she would scream out loud and curse from the pain as she felt her skin stretch.
“I eventually ended up listing chemo treatments on the same ‘to-do’ list as my grocery shopping list, or buying socks for my step-son,” Wright said. “I just accepted it and made it part of my life.”
During her chemo treatments, Wright would sit in a recliner for three hours with her husband by her side. They’d watch TV together and he’d stay with her while she slept. Caleb Wright said he felt privileged to be there to help someone he loves.
“I wanted to make sure she didn’t feel alone through the process,” he said. “It’s really important to have someone there to grab a blanket or get you a glass of water or to just be quiet and listen.”
In December 2011, just five months after her last reconstruction surgery, Wright deployed to Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan. Even though she was ecstatic that the cancer was gone, Wright said she felt very unhappy with her body and wanted to make a change.
She met many motivated Marines who encouraged her to exercise every day and she began using the “Insanity” program. She worked out and lost fat, but still felt out of shape. Wright said she became depressed with her body’s appearance. The “Insanity” program caused her irradiated skin to break blood vessels and she dreaded more reconstructive surgeries.
Wright returned home to North Carolina in 2012 and decided to contact Marine Corps Community Services. Their staff at Camp Lejeune showed her the weight room and how to use it. For 12 weeks, Wright participated in a lightweight circuit and felt stronger, but still couldn’t do a single pull-up. Wright believed that if she could get in shape, she wouldn’t have to get more reconstructive surgeries. She decided to push it to the next level.
“I think we all assume that someday we will be in the best shape of our life and have a six-pack and do pull-ups,” said Wright. “I learned you have to make that day happen.”
Wright hired an online personal trainer and received explicit instructions every month on what weights to lift, what cardio to do, and what food to eat. She was required to e-mail pictures each week for feedback.
Wright heard of a bodybuilding competition that MCCS was holding on June 1, 2012. She had only three months to prepare if she was going to sign up, but with the warrior mindset, she knew she could take on the challenge.
“The Marine Corps has helped me find my calling in life, sent me to law school, and let me travel around the world,” Wright said. “I wouldn’t have been able to beat breast cancer if it weren’t for the Marine Corps. I owed it to the Corps to be in the best shape of my life and so I did it.”
Because of the self-discipline and determination that her weight trainer encouraged, Wright was able to walk across the stage of the Camp Lejeune Base Theater in a bikini in front of hundreds of Marines. That’s not the only thing she accomplished, though. Wright took her first Marine Corps physical fitness test of the year on June 17, 2013 and went from struggling to attempt a chin up to completing nine overhand pull-ups.
Wright planned to train for upcoming competitions, like a national competition held in Las Vegas, but her plans did a complete 180 in August when she received exciting news.
Wright is expecting a baby this April, which is great news that her and her family weren’t expecting. She said the whole family is overwhelmed with joy and the pregnancy means so much to her. Maybe waking up in the middle of the night to a crying baby won’t seem so bad after everything she’s overcome.
“This pregnancy means that I have beaten cancer, met the Marine Corps standards of pull-ups, and walked across a stage in the best shape of my life,” Wright said. “I won, and I am not done yet.”
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