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Face of Defense: Cancer Survivor Ready to Fly

By Air Force Capt. Joseph Knable
19th Airlift Wing

LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark., May 20, 2010 – One year ago, Air Force Senior Airman Brian Petras was flying C-130 Hercules missions around the world.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Air Force Senior Airman Brian Petras sits in the cockpit of a C-130 Hercules, May 11, 2010, on the flightline at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark. Diagnosed with cancer in 2009, he returned to duty less than a year after surgery to remove part of his right leg. He is a flight engineer with the 50th Airlift Squadron. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Steele C.G. Britton
  

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

Since then, the flight engineer was diagnosed with cancer, underwent extensive surgery, recuperated, returned to all duties except flying and passed his physical fitness test with no score adjustments.

And he passed with just one foot. Petras, 24, has 700 deployed flying hours from two deployments, and he's a cancer survivor.

Last summer, after icing his sore foot for a month and seeing no improvement, he went to the doctor. "It started out as kind of like a lump on my foot, like a swelling," he said, "and I just thought it was a sprained muscle or something."

After a month and a half of tests and treatments, Petras learned he had a malignant tumor and said that doctors would have to amputate his right foot.

"I was shocked," he said. "But since I … knew it was definitely going to happen, I just decided I could either stay positive or feel sorry for myself. I've just been trying to go on as normal as possible."

Before his surgery, Petras enjoyed biking, running and snowboarding. Since his surgery, he not only enjoys all of the same activities, but also has become even more active.

He recently rode his bicycle 350 miles across Texas in six days, and later this month he will begin a two-month, 4,000-mile coast-to-coast bike ride from San Francisco to Virginia. The trip, organized by World Team Sports, is called "The Face of America: Sea to Shining Sea Ride."

In the ride, Petras will join about a half dozen injured servicemembers from each of the military branches, along with a few civilians, to raise money for charities.

Petras said his desire to returning to flying was a major factor that motivated him to recover and return to work so quickly.

"I just enjoy flying," he said, "I can't stand sitting around. I like traveling. I like just being on the flight, and I like the challenge of it.

"As of right now, I'm 95 percent back to normal,” he continued. “There's really not much holding me back. I can run, snowboard, ride a bike, pretty much do anything. I can do everything I could before. I feel 100 percent confident I can go back and do my job without any problem."

Despite his unshakable positive attitude, the road to recovery hasn't been easy.

"The first couple of months were pretty rough," he acknowledged. He healed for six weeks after the Aug. 24 amputation before he got a prosthetic leg. In the middle of September, he started the first of four rounds of chemotherapy that spanned three months.

"It was one week on, then three weeks off to recover," he explained.

He got his prosthetic leg shortly after his first round and began rehabilitation between subsequent rounds.

"That was pretty rough,” he admitted. “The chemo pretty much knocked me out. I had almost no energy. I felt sick. I really couldn't do much. I could barely take care of myself. Luckily, I was able to get a prosthetic [leg] and walk around without crutches and still do certain things, but I was still really tired."

Petras went home for Christmas after his final chemotherapy session, and in January he went to the Center for the Intrepid at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

"It specializes in care for amputees and burn victims," he said, "It's mostly guys coming from Iraq and Afghanistan that are there. But they do a really good job.”

His time at the center gave him perspective, Petras said.

“Here's me with a below-the-knee amputation, rehabbing and getting done in three months, and there are guys who've been there for years,” he said. “They're missing both of their legs, they're missing [legs] above the knee, they're missing arms and hands, or 90 percent of their body is burned, and me coming in there is like a scratch. It's not a big deal at all.

"Those guys are very inspiring,” he continued. “Some of the guys, with the stuff they're going through, have just as good an attitude as I have, so we all kind of helped each other. To [the other patients], you're no different; you don't get treated any different."

Petras said he was very pleased with the care he received at the center. "The people who worked at the [Center for the Intrepid], they're just really good at their jobs, from the physical therapists, to the occupational therapist to the psychologist there. Everybody cared about us and made sure we got the best training possible or the best rehabilitation possible. They did a really good job."

He added that he’s especially grateful for the care he received from John Wood, his recovery care coordinator, and Lauren Palmer, his medical case manager. They were “two people who helped me out immensely. Not even just medical stuff, but anything," he said.

"I don't like to consider myself handicapped. … I feel normal," he added.

The Bloomsbury, N.J., native said he continues to look to the future.

"The biggest thing I want to convey is that I don't see it as a serious problem right now,” he said. “I see it as a minor inconvenience, and I want other people to treat me like that. I think of this thing as a pair of glasses. For me, it's something that takes me five extra minutes to get out of bed in the morning. … The biggest challenge for me is taking a shower standing on one leg. … Some people have injuries that are not as visible as mine, yet they're not even as mobile as me. I don't limp, I can run, I can do whatever.

"I don't want my accomplishments to be thought of as 'Brian the amputee' did something,” he added. “I don't like that. I want it to just be 'Brian' did something. I want to be treated like it's not that big of a deal. I don't feel handicapped. … As far as I'm concerned, I was ready to [return to flying] in January."

 

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