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Face of Defense: Airman Tells Cancer Survival Story

By Air Force Master Sgt. Martie Moore
Special to American Forces Press Service

KIRKUK AIR BASE, Iraq, Feb. 5, 2010 – Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Ronnie Barham, the 506th Air Expeditionary Group chief enlisted manager here, recalled a day seven years ago involving another noncommissioned officer now serving with him in Iraq.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Mark Duran, a cancer survivor, builds support beams at Kirkuk Air Base, Iraq, Jan. 28, 2010. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Tabitha Kuykendall

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

"He had a tube down his nose; IVs in his arms, had lost a lot of weight and was heavily medicated,” Barham said. “He looked really rough, and he looked up at me and said, 'I'm comin' back, Chief.'"

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Mark Duran didn’t know how sick he was at the time.

"I had a dry cough and couldn't stay warm. I just thought I had the flu," recalled Duran, now a 506th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron structures technician who’d deployed to Iraq from the 301st Civil Engineer Squadron at Joint Reserve Field Carswell-Fort Worth, Texas.

The cough lasted about three months before high fevers started setting in, and Duran's friends finally convinced him to go to the doctor. The X-rays revealed his spleen was three times its normal size. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease.

According to the National Cancer Association, the disease’s symptoms include the painless enlargement of lymph nodes, spleen or other immune tissue. Other warning signs, which Duran developed, include fever, weight loss, fatigue and night sweats.

When the doctor told him he had cancer, Duran didn't look at it as a death sentence. He had a 30-percent chance of survival.

"I didn't realize it was as bad as it was,” he said. “When the doctor told us it was Stage 4, I thought, 'Well that has to be the least serious. Stage 1 must be the worst. I was near death and totally ignorant about how serious it was."

The stage of a cancer, usually measured on a scale of 1 to 4, indicates of how much the cancer has spread. The stage often takes into account the size of a tumor, how deeply it has penetrated, whether it has invaded adjacent organs, and whether it has spread to the lymph nodes or distant organs.

Duran said he believes the doctor didn't convey the gravity of the diagnosis because he thought he might lose hope.

"He didn't realize how strong my Christian faith is," the airman said.

Duran had surgery Jan. 8, 2004, to remove his spleen and gall bladder, which was 80-percent cancerous.

"It was beyond a Stage 4. There's no such thing as a 5," Duran said. "I still question why I'm still here, but I'm here for a purpose."

After surgery and chemotherapy treatments, Duran was not prepared for what came next.

"The hardest part was paying for it. It was catastrophic," he said. "Every chemo treatment is $7,000." After insurance, Duran still had $50,000 in medical bills to pay out of his pocket.

As a civilian, Duran works for the Birdville Independent School District in Texas, and he has been in the Air Force Reserve for 26 years. Although family and friends tried to help, it just wasn't enough. He chose to file bankruptcy.

"Between the cancer and bankruptcy, it changed the importance of things in my life," Duran said. "I saw what I owned and what wasn't important and what really is important, like relationships with family and friends. It strengthened my relationship with my wife and even my in-laws. With my in-laws, I'm no longer a son-in-law. I'm a son to them."

Serving his country also is high on Duran’s priority list.

"I never intended to get out, but I thought the military might force me out," he said.

Duran's reserve commander and Barham wrote letters to the medical review board, urging them to retain Duran, and it worked.

"From the beginning, I said I'm going to do my 33 years," Duran said.

"He really loves the military and is proud to serve," Barham said. "We wrote the letter so he could still serve, and he volunteered to come here as a structural augmentee. Back home, he is an electrician."

Duran has been in Iraq for more than four months and said he is glad he volunteered to deploy.

"I'm part of a good thing, and I couldn't be surrounded by a better group of people," he said.

Duran credits his positive attitude and faith for keeping him cancer-free for the past six years. Meanwhile, he has been grateful for every moment.

"Don't take your life for granted," he said. "There's not always a tomorrow."

(Air Force Master Sgt. Martie Moore serves in the 506th Air Expeditionary Group public affairs office.)

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