Hero of Keri's War Breast cancer survivor is moving on with life after her battle The hero of Keri's War

Breast cancer survivor MSgt. Keri Whitehead is in the middle of the pack as she does early morning physical training with the Combat Camera squadron where she works at Joint Base Charleston on Thursday May 24, 2012. (Wade Spees/postandcourier.com)

If anyone deserves a special birthday, it's locally based Air Force photographer Keri Whitehead of Ladson.

Two years ago, she was recovering from a single-sided mastectomy and undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. And last year, she was enduring the agony of reconstructive surgery.

Starting in October 2010, Whitehead's cancer journey was graphically documented by friend and award-winning photographer Jeremy Lock as “Keri's War” on a website, Facebook, in The Post and Courier and in the Air Force's Airman magazine in the March-April 2011 edition.

And while breast cancer has marked her life, Whitehead is more than ready to move on from it. On June 9, she turns 34 and already has big plans to celebrate.

“My favorite band, Lady Antebellum, is playing in Charlotte on my birthday. I've got tickets, and I'm really looking forward to it,” says Whitehead.

Aside from getting check-ups every three months, White says her life is back to normal.

“It (breast cancer) was a part of my life. I learned from it. And now I'm past it. I'm just getting on with my life, my career, my daughter, everything. It's just everyday life now,” says Whitehead, an Air Force master sergeant.

She and a close friend, Tech. Sgt. Chrissy Best, plan to return to Dayton, Ohio, where they ran the Air Force Half Marathon on September 17, 2011, to run the full marathon. As a photographer with the 1st Combat Camera Squadron based at Joint Base Charleston, Whitehead is preparing to move for a new assignment in December, teaching at Fort Meade in Maryland.

The whole experience has left Whitehead a changed person.

Marking her journey, Whitehead had a tattoo placed on her inner calf: a Superman logo set atop the Air Force wings with a banner underneath emblazoned with “I.S.S.H.E.C.” — integrity, strength, service, hope, excellence and courage, terms synonymous with the Air Force and breast cancer battles.

The documentation of Whitehead's journey has been remarkable for all involved, including collaborators Joshua DeMotts and Jacob Bailey, for its rawness and reach.

Lock, who has been named Military Photographer of the Year five times, says what struck him the most were comments from relatives of breast cancer victims and survivors. They said the photographs and video made them understand even more the doubt and suffering of the journey.

Showing that, Lock adds, was only possible because of the trust between him and Whitehead.

“It's been an amazing experience, and our friendship has grown immensely,” says Lock.

And while Whitehead's journey ultimately is not over — there's always the chance of the cancer recurring — the project is over.

While Whitehead says she'll keep the Facebook page, the website was purchased for two years and expires in October. Renewing it will have to be discussed later.

Like so many breast cancer patients today, their chances for survival have grown immensely.

Dr. Robert Silgals, who took over as Whitehead's medical oncologist after Dr. Richard McDonough moved, says that Whitehead has no evidence of cancer and is doing well.

“We've made some advances over the last 10 to 15 years,” says Silgals, a partner at Carolina Cancer and Blood Care Specialists, which is affiliated with Trident Medical Center.

Notably, Silgals says Whitehead is taking Herceptin and tamoxifen, both shown to work for battling relapse.

Herceptin targets cancer cells that make too much of the protein erb B2, found on the surface of some cancer cells.

Tamoxifen is an anti-estrogen drug effective in keeping cancer at bay in pre-menopausal women.

What may come as a surprise to many who are not familiar with breast cancer is that the suffering Whitehead endured during gradual breast reconstruction, which took place March to October 2011, trumped that of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

Even though she had been warned by other breast cancer survivors, Whitehead says she still didn't expect it to be so painful.

Expanders were placed inside the breast area, which was tight from surgery and radiation, and periodically filled with fluid. Within 10 minutes of each expansion, Whitehead says she had muscle spasms flare across her chest. She had to take a painkiller for relief.

Longer term, the pressure from the front still causes pain in her back.

“I haven't completely solved that. I'm in constant pain in my back,” says Whitehead.

Further demonstrating her resolve, just weeks after her final breast reconstruction procedure and after being allowed to exercise vigorously again, Whitehead stepped up for friend Best, who helped her through the thick of the cancer.

Best's now-ex-fiance had backed out of running the Air Force Half Marathon with her, and Whitehead didn't want her to have to run alone.

With less than five runs of no more than 5 miles each, Whitehead and Best ran — sometimes shuffled — together, finishing it in 2 hours, 44 minutes. Best adds, “We ran it slow, but we never stopped.”

Lock's parents, who had given the women two “Roaming Gnomes” for their effort, and Best's sister cheered them on.

“It was rough,” says Whitehead. “They (organizers) described the course as flat, but they have a different interpretation of flat. But we ran together and never walked. ... They (Lock's parents and Best's sister) cheered us on at Mile 9 and at the end. The emotion was overwhelming. It was a lot to take in.”

And while finishing the race was a highlight for 2011, finishing the whole marathon distance became the final of three physical goals (the others being finishing the Cooper River Bridge Run and the Marine Corps Mud Run) in 2012.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516 or dquick@postandcourier.com.