Tag Archives: cancer

Don’t mourn in black, travel well

By Staff Sgt. Alexandria Mosness
81st Training Wing Public Affairs

Alison Miller, widow of retired Master Sgt. Chuck Dearing, sits in her pink painted vehicle as military memorabilia is displayed on the passenger seat during a travel break Jan. 16, 2014, at the Keesler Air Force Base camp site, Biloxi, Miss. Prior to the death of her husband, Miller told him that her intent was to continue traveling in a pink painted car so that he could find her while out on the road. (U.S. Air Force photo/Kemberly Groue)

In her deep blue eyes, you not only see the sadness, you can feel the grief of her soul. The agony within her comes from losing her husband to cancer last year. A moment later, those blue eyes dance and what you see isn’t that grief, but love — intense, raw love.

This love from within has recently started Alison Miller, the widow of retired Master Sgt. Chuck Dearing, on a trek across the United States — revisiting places she and Chuck visited together.

She is on a journey to spread his ashes, but also take in the beauty of what is happening around her — something she calls magic.

“He wasn’t a war hero, but he served with such dedication and honor,” Alison said of her late husband. “And by God, if it is the last thing I do, everybody is going to know about him and know about our love story.”

With a plan to share their story of love and commitment, Alison set out on a tour of remembrance in her pink SUV and attached pink teardrop trailer, both displaying her slogan decal “Happily Homeless.”

Chuck’s cremains and flag sit in the passenger seat next to her.

Her journey to happy homelessness had its beginning with a simple idea. A little less than five years ago, Chuck and Alison sold all of their possessions and their house in New Jersey after they decided to hit the road. At first, the pair thought they would move to a different state, so the first three months consisted of a lot of driving. Both felt they had to get somewhere, Alison said.

One day on their journey, Chuck looked at Alison and said, “Why do we want to stop doing this? We are having the time of our lives.”

Together they decided to travel the open roads and stay primarily in affordable, military lodging. Though it sounds like something people only talk of, Alison said they were living their dream.

Alison Miller, widow of retired Master Sgt. Chuck Dearing, sits in the doorway of her pink painted teardrop trailer during a travel break Jan. 16, 2014, at the Keesler Air Force Base camp site, Biloxi, Miss. Following Dearing’s retirement, the couple sold their home and belongings and traveled the country for four years staying primarily in base lodgings. Prior to the death of her husband, Miller told him that her intent was to continue traveling in a pink painted car so that he could find her while out on the road. (U.S. Air Force photo/Kemberly Groue)

“He was my home and I was his,” Alison said, struggling with emotion. “We didn’t have anywhere else, and that was OK — I reveled in that. He was everything to me in the most wonderful way.” People always wondered how the two could stand being together all the time, but Allison said they loved every moment of it.

“It was an ordinary marriage, but we were so deeply in love,” she said. “We had a passionate and romantic marriage. One friend used to comment, ‘When Chuck walks into a room, your eyes just light up and when you guys say goodbye to each other it is like you are never going to see each other again.’

“He would look at me across the room and just wink,” she said with a giggle.

Finding Chuck was unexpected, Alison said. After her first marriage ended in divorce, she said she was certain she would never meet any man again, especially since she had three children.

But Chuck changed all her views on love, she said.

The two were married in 1990 and blended their families, his daughter and her three children.

“It wasn’t easy by any means, but we made it work,” she added.

There were ‘whopperdoodle’ fights, but mainly there was love, Alison said. The strong bond of love played an important role in getting Chuck through cancer the first time.

In September 2010, they found out about his diagnosis, but with aggressive treatment, he beat the cancer.

Even after five surgeries, the couple would not let the disease stop their life. They planned to have the car packed and ready to go after Chuck’s post-operation appointments.

“We would wait to get to Kansas and open the moon roof, turn on Willie Nelson and blast ‘On the Road Again,’” Alison said. “We would see those wide open blue skies and say ‘OK, it’s behind us again.’”

The moon roof she shared with Chuck is the reason she was so adamant about having a moon roof in her new vehicle, which is painted in a special customized color — Chuck’s-watchin’-over-me pink, to give Alison courage to go back on the road again, she said.

The reason for all the pink in her life is that Chuck told her not to mourn for him in black — it wasn’t her color. Instead, he told her to wear pink in his honor. Before Chuck passed away, Alison told him she would continue to travel and would paint her vehicle pink so that he could find her on the open road.

In what she calls Pink Magic, her SUV and trailer combo, she is a woman on a mission and has received an outpouring of love from those she meets.

“There’s something happening here,” she said. “I use the words magical, but I don’t know what it is. Chuck is connecting with me and putting signs in my path.”

Alison speaks of those signs coming from every direction. One man, who she calls her Highway to Heaven Angel, told her, “Chuck wants me to tell you he wouldn’t leave you without a road map.” After all, Chuck was a flight engineer and his nickname was Pathfinder.

“Chuck is leading me because that is what he did in my life, he supported and loved me and encouraged me,” she said. ”He told me to find my dreams and he would help me make them happen. And, he is doing that now in a way where he is not physically present.”

The things that keep the blue-eyed woman with the short blonde hair going is not only Chuck’s love and magic, but the memories they had together.

One of her favorite memories with Chuck is their Death Valley dance. The sun was setting on the desert as they drove and it was the time just before dusk when the beauty of the day shines through brightly, she said. The song “Inspiration” by the band Chicago came on and Alison knew she wanted to mark the moment.

She looked at her Chuck and said, “Let’s get out and dance.”

Due to his health problems, she said Chuck didn’t think he could dance, but she asked him to try and he did. Alison pulled to the side of the road and turned up the music. The duo got out of their vehicle and met at the front and danced. For a split moment, Alison almost didn’t pull over because she thought it might be silly, she said.

Chuck ended that dance with a dip like he always did because, “I told him right from the first time we danced that I thought that to be the height of romance,” Alison recalled.

She said she is eternally grateful because it would end up being her last dance with Chuck.

“I will always have that last dance,” she said. “Chuck was always romantic. We never took a moment for granted; we made it count.”

Those lasting moments were vital when Chuck was in hospice care. Alison remembered her final conversation with her husband.

“My last conversation with him was saying goodbye and telling him I would be OK,” she said. “I thanked him for being in my life, for loving me and showing me how to trust again. I told him I would always remember him.

“He told me, ‘You know, I love our children so much and it is hard to say goodbye to them, but it is hardest of all to say goodbye to you. It’s hard to say goodbye to us,’” she recalled.

Dealing with the loss of her husband hasn’t been easy, but Alison said she discovered her own fearlessness.

“I have no fear anymore,” she said. “After losing this man and watching him die in front of me, there is nothing left to fear.”

Alison has expressed this to her children as well and her wish is for them not to worry.

“When the time comes and I die, what I want you to picture in your heads and in your hearts … is that I have no fear, and I am picturing myself lying on the bed wherever I am,” she told them. “Chuck is going to walk across the room like he always used to and hold out his hand for me to dance and he is going to take my hand and pull me up, and we are going to dance.”

Until that final dance with her beloved, Alison continues sharing their story to those who listen.

You can follow Allison on her journey by visiting her blog here.

Note to breast cancer: ‘I am not your victim’

110408-F-6701P-086Staff Sgt. Russ Scalf
19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

I’m sure by now most people don’t need to be reminded that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

How could you have missed it? With all the ribbons, “Save the Ta-Tas” T-shirts, bracelets, earrings, shoe laces and other pink doodads, it’s fairly hard to forget.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a soapbox about the big business of breast cancer. Anything that brings attention to the importance of early detection and funds to research for innovative technologies and advanced treatments is a good thing, period.

What is often forgotten in the sea of pink are the individuals on the front lines who are actually fighting the disease. In the three months between the time football players stop wearing pink shoes and the Super Bowl, roughly 58,000 women and 500 men in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and they each have a story.

Three years ago, I had the distinct and life changing privilege of telling the story of Capt. Candice Adams Ismirle. Ismirle, a press operations officer at the Pentagon, was a vibrant and outgoing 29-year-old public affairs officer, co-worker and friend. In October 2010, she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. Triple negative is a particularly aggressive and vile form of the disease, known for its ability to grow fast, avoid detection and spread to other parts of the body. When she and her husband, Maj. Ryan Ismirle, an F-15E pilot, agreed to open their entire lives to the prying eyes of my digital camera, I’m not sure that any of us could have predicted the ways it would change our lives.

Over the course of the next 18 months, I recorded their journey as she combated her disease. On a typical day of documenting, I would leave my house around 4 a.m. to make the hour-long trip in to Washington, D.C., and accompany her to a seemingly endless regiment of appointments and treatments. After waiting out the effects of the day’s dose of chemical medicine, I would pack up and head for home, usually getting to sleep around midnight.

That was the easy part. My role in this drama was utterly simple compared to Capt. Ismirle’s. While undergoing treatment, she wrote notes to the cancer that was attacking her body. The culmination of our efforts was a photo and video roadmap to fighting breast cancer titled “Pink Kisses; cancer MY way,” which can be seen here. I could describe to you about the heartbreak and hard times, of which there were plenty, but that’s just not Candice’s story. She chose to do something different, and purely remarkable. She was resilient in the situation she was dealt, and vowed to never allow herself to play the role of cancer’s victim. Whichever way her story ended, she made one modest promise; to celebrate the life she had.

In one of her notes she wrote, “You’re serious, nothing to take lightly, and I respect the gravity of you because you take life, but I choose to minimize you because you were never going to take mine… It’s important you know that I am not your victim. I choose to celebrate life, rather than simply survive it. Love, Candice.”

I have made a promise also, to genuinely care about every human captured in each frame I shoot and every line I write; usually my fellow Airmen. I never fully grasped the power of an image or responsibility that comes along with telling someone’s story before Pink Kisses.

That idea of caring for each other is a view shared by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III and Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Cody. During a recent visit to Osan Air Base, South Korea, Welsh said, “Caring for each other is one of the Air Force’s three keys to success, along with common sense and communication. I know that all of you care a lot — you care about each other, your professions, your families — but think about the job. We have to fight and win the nation’s wars,” Welsh said. “We’ll never be good enough at that job so we have to get better all the time. Think about the people you work with, that you’re sitting beside, think about your family and theirs. We’ll never care enough about them — we have to care more.”

The first step, Welsh continued, is to learn about each other.

“Every Airman has a story,” he said. “Their stories are incredible, unique, uplifting, sad, inspirational, just incredible, and everybody in here has one. If you don’t know the story you can’t lead someone as well as you could otherwise. It’s really that’s simple. It’s all about understanding each other, because the better we know each other, the better we’ll take care of each other, the prouder we’ll be, and the better our Air Force will be. That’s the Air Force I think we all want to be part of.”

Last week, I received a painful message from a colleague. Ismirle’s cancer had returned and she was in surgery to remove a tumor from her brain. I immediately felt as helpless and vulnerable as she had appeared in many of my images.

Yesterday I booked a flight to D.C., I am headed back for round two. While I’m only an observer with a camera, I’m going to do the only thing I know how; help my wingman kick cancer’s ass, again.

PHOTO: Staff Sgt. Russ Scalf and Capt. Candice Adams Ismirle pose for a studio photo April 8, 2011, at Fort George G. Meade, Md. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Justin Pyle)

He fought to live so he could live to fight

Senior Airman Jessica Haas
8th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

“The doctor told me I had cancer in the top of my shin bone,” said Staff Sgt. Robert Timms, 8th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron unit fitness program manager. “Two days later, I was medically evacuated to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C., to begin my treatment.” Staff Sgt. Robert Timms became a certified personal trainer to give back to others after his battle with cancer.

Timms is his squadron’s physical training monitor at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, and is also a certified personal trainer. He is, and always has been, a very active person, which is why being diagnosed with cancer was such a shock to him and those who knew him.

“My life revolved around physical activities,” Timms said. “At the age of eight, I was enrolled in Sho-To-Kan karate and have been hooked on physically bettering myself ever since.”

Years passed and Timms continued to expand upon his athletic repertoire. He practiced kickboxing and later went on to play semi-professional football for the Italian Football League while stationed at Aviano Air Base, Italy.

PHOTO 1: Staff Sgt. Robert Timms, 8th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron unit fitness program manager, rubs chalk on his hands to help increase his grip while lifting weights at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, July 19, 2013. Timms is certified in personal training, a passion fueled by overcoming cancer and wanting to give back to others. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jessica Haas/Released)

“I loved playing football,” he said. “It was just another way for me to have fun and get physical. But playing football is how I realized something was wrong with my leg. I went to the doctor and was told it was bursitis or tendonitis, so I was given medication, which ultimately did nothing to help.”

After seeing his doctor, receiving a several cortisone shots and being through one too many x-rays for almost a year, he requested a different doctor.

“The new doctor took more x-rays and noticed something the other did not – my left shin showed black at the top,” Timms said. “That’s when he told me it was cancer.”

On Christmas Eve of 2008, the athlete went in for his first biopsy so the physician could take a sample of the cancer from his leg. Timms was required to go back in again for a second biopsy on New Year’s Day.

“After both biopsies, I began chemotherapy,” Timms said. “Everything you can possibly imagine happening during chemo is what happened. I lost my hair, couldn’t eat and was weak and tired all of the time.”

While the kickboxer struggled through his therapy, he started working at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., under the patient squadron in the systems flight.

“While recovering from the cancer, I really enjoyed the work I did in the medical field; so much so I considered cross-training into that career field,” Timms said. “I looked at all the people who had helped me, and really wanted the chance to give back.”

Time passed and before he knew it, the cancer victim completed his last round of chemotherapy. He was cancer free by June 2009.

“I felt empowered; like I had beaten one of the biggest ailments to ever attack the human race,” he said. “Even though I have beaten it, I still have to take tests every year to ensure that it is gone and hasn’t come back. But I’ll take that any day over the pain I felt in my leg.”

By March 2010, the cancer-survivor moved to Moody Air Force Base, Ga., and went back to his previous career field as a weapons loader.

“My intentions to help people went to the wayside until I deployed to Afghanistan in March 2011,” Timms said. “But once I arrived in the desert, I decided to better myself – and that’s what I did.”

The bodybuilder was 100 percent committed to the gym and working out. This is when he decided on a career field geared towards helping others.

“I thought if I can help others without changing my career and, at the same time, increasing my knowledge in an area that I love, why not get certified in personal training?” Timms said.

Staff Sgt. Robert Timms performs a bicep curl while at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea.

PHOTO 2: Staff Sgt. Robert Timms, 8th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron unit fitness program manager, performs a bicep curl while at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, July 19, 2013. Timms has been physically active his entire life, participating in activities including Sho-To-Kan karate and football. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jessica Haas/Released)

The weapons loader returned to Moody AFB with 60 extra pounds of muscle and an eagerness to use his newly acquired certification in personal training.

“I only tell people my story to motivate them, because I used to be the guy who saw commercials on television about cancer and always said, that will never be me,” he said. “So when people say they can’t do something, I show them they can through my experiences.”

Timms’ passion for fitness is fueled by the idea that if a person wants something badly enough and believes failure is not an option, then it won’t be, and anything is possible.

“I love people and I enjoy helping them,” Timms said. “When someone is smiling because they feel good about themselves, I feel good. I can’t think of anything better than that.”

Warrior Games 2013: Cancer survivor tackles new challenge

Staff Sgt. Lara Ishikawa listens to her coach at the Academy indoor track.by Randy Roughton
Air Force News Service, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Staff Sgt. Lara Ishikawa found herself among a trio of female Air Force Warrior Games athletes with a special bond. Ishikawa, Tech. Sgt. Monica Figueroa and Master Sgt. Sherry Nel are all cancer survivors and relied on each other for support and conversation during the team’s selection camp at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Before the holidays in 2009, Ishikawa, then a diagnostic imaging technologist at Aviano Air Base, Italy, never imagined she would be running track and field events, not to mention in competition for wounded warrior athletes. She first felt a lump in her breast in December 2009, but her invasive mammary carcinoma wasn’t diagnosed until the following April.

“It’s heart-wrenching,” Ishikawa said. “Nobody expects to get cancer, and I had no family history of it. I’ve always been very healthy and active, and I tried to take care of myself. It was a shock, still a shock, but you learn to cope and move on.”

While Ishikawa, whose cancer is now in remission after multiple surgeries, a double mastectomy and reconstruction, didn’t want to compete because she didn’t have a combat-related injury, conversations with Figueroa and Nel, along with other wounded warriors, changed her mind. She was already particularly close with Nel, who she befriended near the end of her recovery from chemotherapy and radiation in the 59th Medical Wing’s Patient Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.

“Lara and I are pretty much parallel with the complications we’ve had,” Nel said. “We’ve both had just about everything you can throw at us. We’d been doing it individually, thinking that we were both alone. It felt so good to find out that we were not alone. Lara really inspired me with her tenacity. She’s a little bear claw because she just grabs on to something and takes care of it. Her spirit really had me hooked.”

While the multiple surgeries sapped her energy in the past few years, she appears more than ready for the training and competition in the 100 and 200-meter and long jump track and field events.

“I feel more energetic today than I have in the past three years,” she said. “But in the past two and a half years, I had no energy because I had the surgeries, having to deal with the career, and the medications they put you on that make you tired. Last spring, I had a pretty serious surgery. After that, I could hardly walk, hardly make it up my stairs. I found it a challenge to go for a walk around the block, even though I knew it was good for me. I don’t like to sit around doing nothing, so I made myself take a walk and realized I could do that. The next thing I knew, two months later, I was running.

“With the Warrior Games, I’ve been pushed to my max. I’m really sore, but I’m working muscles I haven’t worked in 15 to 20 years, and emotionally, I’ve met some incredible people.”

After the Games, Ishikawa hopes she can continue on with her 10-year Air Force career, but if she’s not able to remain on duty, she will adjust to a new course.

“I’ve enjoyed the Air Force,” she said. “The Air Force has been wonderful to me in every way. I don’t have one complaint. On the other hand, if I get out, I can start a new life, maybe go to school. But the main goal is to stay healthy. If I’m healthy, I’m happy.”

For more information check out the 2013 Warrior Games bios.

PHOTO: Staff Sgt. Lara Ishikawa listens to her coach speak before running laps at the Academy indoor track during the Wounded Warrior Games Training Camp held in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 17, 2013. Ishikawa is stationed at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo by Desiree N. Palacios)

Never saw this coming: Lessons learned in trying times

Maj. Gen. A. J. StewartBy Maj. Gen. A. J. Stewart
Air Force Personnel Center Commander

I had the world by the tail: U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, Air Force pilot, six-time commander, 30-year Air Force career, and two stars; fit, healthy and strong. But subtle problems appeared out of nowhere: occasional vertigo, mild persistent headaches, cognitive challenges, having to stop during a hard run.

I went to see the flight surgeon and was immediately referred to a Neurologist. An MRI revealed a golf-ball sized tumor on the left temporal lobe of my brain and the doctor bluntly told me, “Your life will never be the same.” I was literally stunned.

Swelling was critical and I was admitted for surgery five days later. The surgeon briefed me on all that could go wrong, but the young Air Force captain performed expertly. He gets my vote if I ever need another surgery.

The tumor was successfully removed down to the microscopic level. The question remained “why did I have a tumor?” The news from the lab was not good: malignant growth from stage IV of the worst form of brain cancer.

It was time to fight.

After a few weeks of recovery from surgery, I felt like a million bucks. My fitness and strength were returning and I was back to full duty and physical activity. I, also, simultaneously started a six-week, aggressive anti-cancer radiation and chemotherapy treatment plan.

The doctors told me I would be fatigued, suffer nausea and lack energy from the treatment. To counter those potential symptoms, I got back in the weight room, back on my bike, back on the running trail, back on the golf course and back to full time duty as commander of the best organization in the Air Force – Air Force Personnel Center!

The negative side effects never showed up. My fitness, strength and health remained good but it was also the hundreds of e-mails, cards, letters and prayers from my family, friends, coworkers and even strangers that helped me keep my spirit up.

Last week, I completed my last of 30 radiation and 42 chemotherapy treatments and I still feel great! The next critical step is another MRI in a few weeks to see if the cancer has returned. I pray for good results.

I never saw any of this coming.

I have learned a few lessons along the way that may help others who find they are facing tremendous challenges.

Be fit, be strong, and be healthy every day. Fitness is not about just passing the Air Force Fitness Test or deploying, it is about saving your life. A well rested, strong body and a healthy diet can help you fight off tough challenges when they come.

Life is short and precious. If there are things you want to accomplish in life, get busy now. “One day” and “someday” may never come. Push yourself to do more, now. Tomorrow is not promised, so do not waste a day.

Be positive. Brain tumors can be fatal so there’s no room for defeatism; you have to fight a challenge like you intend to win. Leave negative thoughts behind and be ready to endure. Run your race like a winner. Attitude may be the number one component of success.

Be open and honest, up and down the chain. Our Air Force is a family. I have received the support of literally hundreds of kindred Airmen, with a big “A.” The Air Force has proven itself a family from our senior leadership to our youngest Airmen, including civilians and supporters. If folks know your challenges, they can help. My AFPC and A1 family have been magnificent. They have opened their arms and hearts, and carried me through the tough times.

Be a bouncer. Bad things sometimes happen. It is not a question of whether you will take a fall so, get over it. The question is will you bounce back. It is really up to you. Be tough minded – you are a warrior! Think like a winner and bounce.

Love your family. My wife, Areetha, has been the “wind beneath my wings” and my rock. She has been beside me every step of this journey and she insists I keep a positive attitude. She ran the Marine Corps Marathon last fall at age 50! She is 100% positive and endures. I thank God for having her as my wingman. My Mom, sisters and extended family have also been my cheering section. They are irreplaceable and I love them dearly.

This is a tough, unexpected fight and it is not over. Our most humble “THANK YOU!” from Areetha and me. We are overwhelmed with your support, words of encouragement and prayers.

I’ve cleared a few hurdles but the fight is still on. I intend to win.