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Face of Defense: Colonel Beats Cancer, Soars High

By Air Force Maj. Veronica Kemeny
Special to American Forces Press Service

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla., Dec. 9, 2009 – Air Force Col. Michael Stapleton has come a long way since being diagnosed with cancer in 2006 while serving as 43rd Fighter Squadron commander here.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Air Force Col. Michael Stapleton, diagnosed with cancer in 2006, is back flying in F-22 Raptors and T-38 Talons at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. U.S. Air Force photo
  

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

Now the 49th Fighter Wing Operations Group commander at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., Stapleton recalled that he didn’t realize at first that his illness was serious.

"I had what appeared to be the stomach flu, and was feeling very weak,” he said. “I went to the doctor and was thinking I was dehydrated and I needed to kick the flu in order to get back on the flying schedule.”

But the flight doctor thought it was more than the flu and decided to check Stapleton’s blood. “He started us down the right path due to his attentiveness and thoroughness,” the colonel said. “In his words, I just didn't look like myself. Score the first save for Air Force medicine."

The blood test revealed that Stapleton’s red and white blood cell levels were about half of normal.

"We chased a lot of things until finally we checked my bone marrow," Stapleton said. "My wife, Christine, a nurse practitioner and former Air Force nurse, was insistent on the bone marrow biopsy from the start. Another save by Air Force medicine. That is when we found out I had myelodysplastic syndrome, a type of bone marrow cancer found in older populations.

“The patient advocate at Tyndall made the rest happen,” he continued, “and I was off to Houston for medical treatment. Again, another Air Force save."

He was diagnosed with cancer Aug. 8, 2006.

"My experience with the military medical system was awesome," he said. "I had a local hematologist/oncologist who managed my case, and Tricare sent me to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Medical Center in Houston for treatment." The Houston facility is a center of excellence for a number of cancers, and is one of the leading hospitals for bone marrow transplants, which is the only recognized cure for MDS.

The Tricare military health system provides some of the best medical care available, Stapleton said.

"Whenever you or your dependents are seriously ill, you should become familiar with the Tricare case manager system," he said. "Also, make sure you get to know your patient advocate and your primary care manager very well.”

Tricare has a second opinion system that works to the benefit of patients who are smart about their disease or condition and know where its centers of excellence are, he said.

“You need to get smart and be your own advocate,” he added. “If you do, the Tricare system works extremely well. You don't need a medical degree. You need the Internet and the phone number of your patient advocate. It's a great system, and I am extremely thankful for it."

A new drug caused Stapleton's cancer to go into remission.

"While waiting for a bone marrow donor match, I was prescribed a new drug called Revlimid," he said. "In four months, I was in remission and did not have to undergo the bone marrow transplant. It's a miracle, if you ask me. It's not a recognized cure, but it is a new lease on life that I do not intend to waste."

The colonel was considered cancer-free on Nov. 23, 2006, and was able to return to flying status.

"I'm lucky and had better not waste this chance," Stapleton said. "I also felt a sense of responsibility to make this work. Of course, I was also very happy that I would fly again. Oddly enough, being healthy was and is still more important to me."

Stapleton offered advice for those facing cancer for the first time.

"Get smart, get tough and keep your faith," he said. "Some of us are made to be fighters, and cancer is our challenge. Your attitude and priorities are extremely important. And don't settle for a doctor. Get the best. Tricare will get them for you, and there are more out there than you may think.

“Get smart on the new drugs and studies at university hospitals,” he continued. “There are lots of support organizations out there too. You are not in this alone."

The cancer experience did not change his convictions, the colonel said, and several things helped him get through this illness.

"Although faith is a fairly private issue for me, I was raised and continue to be a dedicated Catholic," he said. "Cancer didn't change that part of my life. It energized it for me and my family. Somehow, it also made my hair gray. I think it has helped me galvanize my priorities."

But his faith wasn’t all that got him through it.

"Everything about my life helped me get through this: my faith, my family, the Air Force and the Panama City community where I was diagnosed," he said. "I don't recommend cancer to anyone, but I have to tell you it was definitely a positive experience for me. It sounds crazy, but this has been one of the best experiences of my life. I learned a lot about myself, and have come to rely on my family a lot more."

Stapleton’s Air Force friends rallied around him during his illness.

"So many people supported us during the tougher times," he said. "It was truly an uplifting experience. I think being in Panama City had a lot to do with the miraculous nature of my remission. People from just about every church in the area were praying for us. I can't describe how good I felt, but 'eternally thankful' is a start."

Stapleton said he knows that flying is a privilege, and that at one point during his cancer fight he thought flying was a distant memory.

"I am very thankful for the chance to fly again," he said. "I am flying F-22 [Raptors] and T-38 [Talons] routinely, and under instructor supervision, I have had the chance to get into the MQ-1 [Predator] and MQ-9 [Reaper] operations. Our operators and maintainers on the flightline continue to impress at every chance. I will admit, however, that the best part is to be back on the team of airmen who work so hard to fix and fly our aircraft. Our nation is blessed to have their service, and their dedication to the mission inspires and motivates me to no end."

Life continues to be "ops normal" for the colonel and his family.

"I still tend to run short in the 'patience' category of leadership, and still absolutely love the Air Force," Stapleton said. "The airmen we serve with today are the best of the best -- complete patriots, truly inspirational. Serving with them is one of the best experiences life has to offer.

"My children have gotten older, my wife has gotten younger, and I continue to seek opportunities to make life a little better for others,” he continued. “I feel like my time is running short and that I owe so much for the chance to be well again."

The future still holds many bright surprises, he noted.

"I will move this summer, likely to a staff job," Stapleton said. "If it's like any other job I've had in the Air Force, I will love it. I can say with absolute certainty that I will miss Holloman."

The importance of faith, family and friends when facing something like this cannot be understated, he said.

"I will forever be indebted to those who fed, supported and prayed for me and my family," the colonel said. "This experience has impacted my family in so many ways I can't explain. I think my kids have a better dad, for one, and I realize that each day is a gift."

(Air Force Maj. Veronica Kemeny serves in the 325th Fighter Wing public affairs office.)

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