I was an active duty staff sergeant in the USAF. My job as law enforcement specialist required me to police the airbase where I was stationed, and man the 7 entry point control gates. I considered myself someone who would protect others, not someone who needed protection. I have always thought that any problem that came into my radar I could handle easily. I never thought of myself as someone who needed help.
I was in the finest shape of my young life, invincible, and sure of my immortality. And then I developed a cough that just would not go away. I was swallowing Hall’s medicated cough drops like they were Pez candies. Cough syrup I drank like a thirsty alcoholic, and would give me quite a buzz. But nothing I took stopped the constant coughing. This went on for months to the annoyance of all around me, many of whom suggested I go to the base hospital. I had never been to a hospital a day in my life. Fit as a fiddle I was. I was sure I just needed to stop smoking. And then one day I coughed up some blood.
Long story short, seems like my immortality was not to be. I was diagnosed with lung cancer. Smoking probably didn’t help, and there having been a history of various cancers in my family probably wasn’t a good thing either.
I am not going to bore you with the medical regimen I underwent to get my cancer under control (they tell me you are never really cured of cancer. It can return like an unwelcome relative and not just on holidays). This is not that kind of story. What I am going to tell you is that it is important to get checked out.
We in the military are lucky enough to have some of the best health care provided to us at no cost to us. I am here to tell you that you might as well use it, and use it often.
My cancer was such that I took an early discharge from the service, but that didn’t mean that my health care ended. Despite what various media outlets would lead some to believe, the care I received from VA hospitals was nothing short of excellent. And I know that my experience can differ wildly from many other like me. Even getting cancer, I considered still considered myself a lucky guy.
I was a single guy far from home. What got me through all of the procedures on my way to recovery was I knew that I was not alone in the fight.
A cancer diagnosis is stunning news to any young active duty service member. All sorts of issues will crop up. My main concern, over and above my concern for my health, was wondering how this illness would affect my military status. Would I be able to continue to serve? Short answer… I was not.
I am thankful for the support and care I received from the Ullman Cancer Fund, a support program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. It helps many who have been diagnosed with cancer in the military. The Walter Reed/UCF program provides patient support, as well as a chance to share information and identify ways to improve care. The group has built camaraderie through events like horseback riding, jazz concerts, and all sorts of sporting event. They even host several fundraising drives throughout the year.
If you have been in the military and received a cancer diagnosis, this Walter Reed program is a good place to start.
If you are a veteran with cancer and are having financial problems, there are many resources available to you. One organization that helped me through a bad patch is the National Cancer Assistance Foundation, through one of their programs called the National Cancer Assistance Military Fund. They give direct financial assistances to veterans with cancer for a wide range of needs. And believe me, I had a wide range of needs.
Also, use your VA benefits. It is sometimes a hassle to get a quick appointment and the local clinic, but if you have a VA hospital near you, they always take walk-ins. Don’t wait until you are coughing up blood to see a doctor. It’s free to you, so you might as well use it.
- Staff Sergeant Kevin Riley, USAF (ret)