Face of Defense: Cancer Survivor Earns Chance to Fly Fighters
By Air Force 2nd Lt. Meredith Hein
82nd Training Wing
SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas, Oct. 16, 2013 For one new Air Force pilot, living the dream is much more than a cheap throwaway line.
Air Force 1st Lt. Rob Hansen overcame Hodgkin lymphoma to earn a chance to fly the F-22 Raptor. U.S Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Mike Meares
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
For Air Force 1st Lt. Rob Hansen of the 80th Flying Training Wing, living means surviving stage 2 Hodgkin lymphoma. The dream was graduating at the top of his undergraduate pilot training class and earning a slot flying the world's most advanced fighter.
A student in the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program, Hansen completed his first solo flight in a T-6 Texan II and was five flights into the T-38 stage. "Once we'd finished the T-6 phase, I noticed I had a lump on my throat, so I went in to flight medicine to have it checked out," he said.
It was the day before Thanksgiving 2011 when he learned what that lump meant.
"I will never forget that moment," the Minnesota native said. "I was sitting in the doctor's office. It was very abrupt. He just flat-out said, 'You have cancer.' I've seen movies where people get bad news and everything starts getting fuzzy and the character doesn't really listen to what is being said. That's pretty much my experience."
Growing up, Hansen said, he was a normal American kid, circling the baseball diamond and having a good time with friends. He was a motor head too, he said, who enjoyed working on snow mobiles and dirt bikes. His father was a commercial pilot, his mother worked in the air traffic control tower, and his brother was a pilot, too.
"As a kid, I always looked up and saw the jets and thought, 'Wow, a fighter pilot is so cool,'" he said. "Aviation was always in the family, but I wanted to be a fighter pilot."
He took flying lessons in high school, but said the straight and level stuff wasn't his speed, so he lost interest. After graduating from St. Cloud State University in Minnesota in 2006, Hansen went to law school, intending to become a staff judge advocate. But while working as an intern at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, he said, he just couldn't shake the pull of the sky as the F-15 Eagles circled overhead.
"I heard there was a shortage of pilots," he said. "I knew it was now or never. I'd always wanted to be a fighter pilot, but you never expect a childhood dream like that to actually come true. I knew it would be a huge mistake to not at least throw my name in the hat."
With his diagnosis, Hansen and his dream were put on “do not fly” status.
"He was so upset that he didn't get to solo the T-38," said Robin Hansen, his girlfriend at the time and now his wife. "It ate at him. Watching him deal with that, and watching his class graduate and get their assignments was really hard on him. I just wanted to fix it for him, but there was nothing I could do."
He realized his only hope of ever becoming a pilot was to fight the cancer with all his strength.
"Getting back in the cockpit was my motivating factor," he said. "I never lost hope that I'd get back to 100 percent."
After Hansen met with the oncologist and came to terms with the reality of cancer, chemotherapy treatments began two months after his November 2011 diagnosis.
"Once I was comfortable with what was going on and what I had to do, it was time to hit the ground running," he said. "I told the oncologist, 'Hey, I'm ready, let's go to it.'"
Once each week, Hansen traveled more than 125 miles to Dallas for his chemotherapy treatments with his brother and girlfriend. He continued to work with the ENJJPT program in casual status, doing odd jobs for the wing and helping out where he could.
"The chemo wasn't all that bad," he said. "I felt sick for a few days after, but I'd bounce back. It was only toward the end of the whole treatment, when the chemo really started to stay with you, that I got sick."
Radiation treatments followed the six weeks of chemotherapy.
"At first, it wasn't that bad," he said. "They give you a shot to protect your nodes, but it made me really nauseous. And at first, I didn't really notice the radiation. Then I started to get sick."
He received radiation treatments five days a week for a month. Every day, Marlene McElrath, a friend from the wing and also a cancer survivor, drove him.
"This is not something anyone should have to go through by themselves," McElrath said. "At first he thought, 'I'm a manly man, I can do it myself,' but the more you do it, the weaker you get."
McElrath said Hansen was like one of her kids.
"This was a team effort," Hansen said. "I don't think I could have gotten through radiation without Marlene."
Hansen was awesome and kept fighting, McElrath said.
"His attitude never changed," she said. "He's so strong. He would come out of a treatment and ask, 'Am I glowing?' and I would say, 'Robert, you're always glowing.'"
However, the truth was not so glamorous.
"When it first started to hurt, it felt like I had strep throat," he said. "Then it was like my whole throat was on fire. That's when I stopped working at the base."
He couldn't eat or drink, and when he did, he was unable to keep anything down. Some nights he would sleep on the bathroom floor with his golden retriever keeping him company.
"There were a couple nights he got so sick he couldn't get back into bed," Robin said. "That was hard, because he didn't want me to see him that way. I couldn't fix it. To see someone so strong and so tough be so weak and vulnerable was rough."
Over the next 16 months, Hansen went through a barrage of treatments, testing the limits of his resolve. For those who know him best, they say the truly phenomenal part of his story is how seemingly unafraid he was.
"He was so amazingly positive about it, it kind of inspired me to be positive about it," Robin said.
Hansen started feeling better once the effects of the radiation started wearing off. Though a positron emission tomography, or PET, scan still showed some remnants of potential cancer, the doctor said the treatments were successful. But, Hansen still wasn't sure whether he was out of the woods.
"It's the best news on the planet, but honestly it wasn't completely relieving," he said. "The PET scans still show signs of leftover radiation. There's always this uncertainty that you still have cancer."
And the next struggle was just about to begin: getting back to flying status.
"I couldn't get a waiver to go back to fly because of the cancer," he said. "The doctors at flight medicine kept pushing and pushing and not getting any answer. I'm really fortunate that my commanders and the flight docs fought for me to stay in until they could get a waiver through for me to go back and fly.
"They were all willing to set aside the code to make my dreams possible, when it would have been so easy for them to let me go," he said.
Persistence paid off, and his medical waiver to return to flying came in March 2013.
"I joined ENJJPT class 13-07 and started right back in the T-38," he said. "My flight mates accepted me and made me feel like I had never left."
Air Force Lt. Col. Bryan Schrass the instructor pilot who flew with Hansen in the T-6 before his diagnosis, had been diagnosed with colon cancer around the same time as Hansen. He, too, returned to flying status a few months before Hansen did, and he was assigned to a new flight -- Hansen's new flight.
"It's really unheard-of," the lieutenant said. "Instructor pilots don't really switch airframes. He switched over and was assigned to the flight I was joining."
Hansen felt complete again sitting in the cockpit. Schrass and Hansen developed a kinship very few other pilots develop with the instructors who teach them to fly.
"It was a thrill for me," Hansen said. "He was someone who could relate to my story. It was a benefit I might not have gotten from a different instructor."
When assignment night came along, Hansen's dream of getting back into the cockpit was complete as he learned he was the only one in his class selected to fly the F-22 Raptor. His classmates rushed him from both sides and carried him on their shoulders.
"It was our No. 1 choice. I felt kind of like Rudy," Hansen said, referring to the protagonist in a movie about an undersized Notre Dame football player. "For me, this is the meanest airplane ever. I think there's a great future for that airframe, so it was a no-brainer for my wife and me."
Hansen was named a distinguished graduate and received the Daedalian Award for top formation pilot, the Flying Excellence Award for the top overall flying score, and the Commander's Trophy for being the top graduate in his class.
It's been nearly two years since his last radiation treatment, which according to his last scan wiped out the final traces of Hodgkin lymphoma. For Hansen, none of these dreams would have been possible without the support of those around him.
"I owe my life and career to everyone in the Sheppard community, and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity they have given me," he said. "I'm 30 now. A year ago, I was battling cancer. And now it feels like everything is falling into place."
Two days after graduation, he married the love of his life. Hansen will complete Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals here before heading to Tyndall AFB, Fla., to train in his dream fighter.
(Air Force Staff Sgt. Mike Meares contributed to this story.)