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Face of Defense: Air Force Staff Sergeant Beats Cancer

By Air Force Tech. Sgt. James M. Hodgman 60th Air Mobility Wing

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TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif., February 27, 2015 — For many people, Independence Day is all about celebration, spending time with family and watching fireworks light up the night sky. But for Air Force Staff Sgt. Richard L. Johnson, July 4, 2014, was not a day for celebrating.

On that day, just two months after his daughter, Ayda, was born, the 660th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron KC-10 crew chief learned he had cancer.

"I experienced pain that got progressively worse for about two months," Johnson said. "I just attributed it to being work-related or sleeping the wrong way. At the beginning of July, though, the pain got pretty bad. I knew something was wrong."

Doctors at David Grant USAF Medical Center discovered Johnson had a cancerous mass the size of a football in his abdomen. The cancer quickly spread and was pushing against several internal organs, as well as against Johnson's spine, causing extreme pain.

Rigors of Treatment

"Because of the size of it, they rushed everything," Johnson said. "I was diagnosed on a Friday, in surgery the next day and started chemotherapy a week later."

Johnson, a native of Naugtauck, Connecticut, said that a team of medical professionals at David Grant, a group he refers to as “the dream team,” was able to remove some of the cancer. He would have to endure chemotherapy treatments to halt the cancer's growth and shrink the mass so doctors could remove the rest.

The staff sergeant underwent continuous, rigorous treatment July through October of 2014.

"I experienced several side effects from the treatments," Johnson said. "I had no memory, extreme migraines, lost all my hair, numbness and tingling in my hands and feet, constant fatigue and extreme back and bone pain. It took all the energy I had to get off the couch."

Staying Positive

Despite experiencing such adversity, Johnson said he never let his mind wander down a negative path. He said he thought about the disease a merely a speed bump, an obstacle to overcome. It was an approach that impressed his wife of two years, Christa Johnson.

"He was unbelievable the entire time," Christa said. "I've never seen anything like it. I'm married to him and he shocked me."

Johnson credits his ability to stay positive while he fought for his life to the support he received from his unit.

After learning about Johnson's diagnosis, members of the 660th AMXS and the 60th Maintenance Operations Squadron quickly responded with an outpouring of support.

A fundraising site was set up to help the Johnsons with expenses. More than 30 meals were delivered to their home, airmen volunteered to babysit, mow the lawn and several of Johnson's coworkers accompanied him during his chemotherapy treatments.

Fellow Airmen Stepping Up

Air Force Master Sgts. Tiffany Risser and Sean Redline of the 660th AMXS set up the fundraising site, as well as a volunteer site where people could support the Johnsons in a variety of ways.

"It's our responsibility to be there for our people and their families, especially in their time of need," Risser said.

The master sergeant recalled the meetings she held informing people of Johnson's condition.

"When I stood in front of our roll call and briefed them on the situation, they were shocked and visibly upset. They could not believe this was happening to one of our own,” she said. “Some looked like statues and did not move, while others leaned against the wall. I told them he was going to need our full support and as the need arose I would let them know what he needs help with.

"After roll call, several people asked me to let them know what he needed and they would help," she continued. "By the time we finished briefing all our shifts, he had an entire team ready to carry him to the cancer-free finish line."

Cancer-free and Paying it Forward

On October 17, doctors at University of California San Francisco's Helen Diller Treatment Center for Cancer removed the remaining cancerous cells from Johnson's body.

Now cancer free, Johnson shares what the support he and his family received meant to him.

"Knowing so many people loved and cared for us was phenomenal," he said. "We were never alone. Many of my co-workers and friends sat with me during my treatments, others watched our daughter so Christa could work and attend my appointments. Dinners were provided so we never had to worry about that. It was all taken care of. I'm extremely touched and thankful."

The Johnsons are now focused on helping others. The couple has donated a total of $1,000 to several people battling cancer, many of them children, through numerous fundraising sites. They say it's their way of paying it forward.