Commentary

March 22, 2012

Never saw this coming: Lessons learned in trying times

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas (AFNS) — I had the world by the tail: U. S. Air Force Academy graduate, Air Force pilot, six-time commander, 30-year Air Force career, and two stars; fit, healthy and strong. But subtle problems appeared out of nowhere: occasional vertigo, mild persistent headaches, cognitive challenges, having to stop during a hard run.

I went to see the flight surgeon and was immediately referred to a neurologist. An MRI revealed a golf-ball sized tumor on the left temporal lobe of my brain and the doctor bluntly told me, “Your life will never be the same.” I was literally stunned.

Swelling was critical and I was admitted for surgery five days later. The surgeon briefed me on all that could go wrong, but the young Air Force captain performed expertly. He gets my vote if I ever need another surgery.

The tumor was successfully removed down to the microscopic level. The question remained: “Why did I have a tumor?” The news from the lab was not good: malignant growth from stage IV of the worst form of brain cancer.

It was time to fight

After a few weeks of recovery from surgery, I felt like a million bucks. My fitness and strength were returning and I was back to full duty and physical activity. Also, I simultaneously started a six-week, aggressive anti-cancer radiation and chemotherapy treatment plan.

The doctors told me I would be fatigued, suffer nausea and lack energy from the treatment. To counter those potential symptoms, I got back in the weight room, back on my bike, back on the running trail, back on the golf course and back to full time duty as commander of the best organization in the Air Force — Air Force Personnel Center!

The negative side effects never showed up. My fitness, strength and health remained good, but it was also the hundreds of emails, cards, letters and prayers from my family, friends, coworkers and even strangers that helped me keep my spirit up.

Last week, I completed my last of 30 radiation and 42 chemotherapy treatments and I still feel great! The next critical step is another MRI in a few weeks to see if the cancer has returned. I pray for good results.

I never saw any of this coming

I have learned a few lessons along the way that may help others who find they are facing tremendous challenges:

  • Be fit, be strong, and be healthy every day. Fitness is not about just passing the Air Force fitness test or deploying, it is about saving your life. A well-rested, strong body and a healthy diet can help you fight off tough challenges when they come.
  • Life is short and precious. If there are things you want to accomplish in life, get busy now. “One day” and “someday” may never come. Push yourself to do more, now. Tomorrow is not promised, so do not waste a day.
  • Be positive. Brain tumors can be fatal, so there’s no room for defeatism; you have to fight a challenge like you intend to win. Leave negative thoughts behind and be ready to endure. Run your race like a winner. Attitude may be the number one component of success.
  • Be open and honest, up and down the chain. Our Air Force is a family. I have received the support of literally hundreds of kindred Airmen, with a big “A.” The Air Force has proven itself a family from our senior leadership to our youngest Airmen, including civilians and supporters. If folks know your challenges, they can help. My AFPC and A1 family have been magnificent. They have opened their arms and hearts, and carried me through the tough times.
  • Be a bouncer. Bad things sometimes happen. It is not a question of whether you will take a fall, so get over it. The question is, will you bounce back? It is really up to you. Be tough minded — you are a warrior! Think like a winner and bounce.
  • Love your family. My wife, Areetha, has been the “wind beneath my wings” and my rock. She has been beside me every step of this journey and she insists I keep a positive attitude. She ran the Marine Corps Marathon last fall at age 50! She is 100 percent positive and endures. I thank God for having her as my wingman. My mom, sisters and extended family have also been my cheering section. They are irreplaceable and I love them dearly.

This is a tough, unexpected fight and it is not over. Our most humble “thank you” from Areetha and me. We are overwhelmed with your support, words of encouragement and prayers.

I’ve cleared a few hurdles but the fight is still on. I intend to win.




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(U.S. Air Force Photo by Airman 1st Class Chris Massey)

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