Tag Archives: survivor

The day breast cancer changed my life

pink2Senior Airman Cierra Presentado
36th Wing Public Affairs

Cold, confused and on the brink of tears were just a few of the emotions I experienced the morning I graduated Air Force Basic Military Training. As I waited all morning for my parents to greet me after eight long weeks, thoughts started running through my mind.

“Why are my parents late?”

This isn’t like them. Finally I looked up to see my mother walking slowly towards me with a scarf over her head, a face mask covering her mouth and dark circles under her eyes. I knew my mother must be sick, and later I learned her sickness was a result of breast cancer.

That moment changed my life forever. As my parents led me to their car, the only thing I could think about was how much my mother had physically changed during the eight weeks I was in training. My father calmly explained to me that my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer the day I left home for basic training.

Growing up, my mother was rarely sick, so I was quite surprised when I learned of the diagnosis. Although the disease runs in the family, I never imagined it would happen to my very own mother. When she was diagnosed, she was already at stage 4, a very dangerous and terminal stage in the cancer world. She was immediately put through radiation and chemo-therapy. After losing all her hair, and the pigment in her skin, I can proudly say my mother beat the horrible disease and has been cancer-free for three years.

My mother was fairly young when she was diagnosed, so both my sister and I have to be checked regularly to ensure the disease does not creep upon us unexpectedly.

According to breastcancer.org, about one in eight U.S. women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of a lifetime. In 2013, there were more than 2.8 million women with a history of breast cancer in the U.S., this includes women currently being treated and women who have finished treatment.

Although breast cancer in men is rare, according to nationalbreastcancer.org, an estimated 2,150 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer and approximately 410 will die each year. So men should also be aware of the signs and symptoms.

Initially the first sign of cancer is a new lump or mass in the breast that you or your doctor can feel. If the lump is painless, hard and has uneven edges, it is more likely to be cancer. However, sometimes the lump can be tender, soft and rounded. It is very important to contact your doctor if you develop these symptoms.

Adults of all ages are encouraged to perform breast self-exams at least once a month. The Hopkins Medical center states, “Forty percent of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump, so establishing a regular breast self-exam is very important.”

If your family has a history of breast cancer like mine does, be sure to inform your health-care provider so they can determine when you should have your first mammogram. If you are unaware of how to do self-examination, there are how-to videos available on various medical sites, or you can simply ask your doctor for help.

While my mother was sick, I was away fulfilling my military service. While I would have loved to be home taking care of my mother, watching her go through the different treatments would have been more than I could handle.

Today my mother is alive and well, and still fighting cancer. She tells her story to spread hope to those who may be fighting cancer. From fundraisers to conferences, my mother is a big advocate for breast cancer awareness. I also made a personal promise to her that I would do monthly self-examinations so that I wouldn’t be caught off guard if the dreadful illness should happen.

The risk of getting breast cancer is a bit high for me, and as much as it makes me nervous, I will not allow it to affect the way I live my life. I will continue to live a healthy lifestyle, look to my mother for inspiration and to spread awareness to those around me. Cancer is a terrible disease, but with the right knowledge and drive, it can be beat!

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)

Freedom: A beautiful thing

by Senior Airman Mariah Tolbert
4th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

120606-F-XX000-010SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. — “I was pretty young with all this but I was probably, at first, more revengeful than I should have been. When the occasion arose, I did not give the Germans very much of a chance. I took it out on them. I may have been wrong but I guess I was very vengeful so I didn’t give them a break, but I overcame that,” explained retired Air Force Lt. Col. Harry Pawlik.

From concentration camp survivor to fighter pilot in the world’s greatest Air Force, Pawlik has turned what would be a horrific experience into a life that was unimaginable to him nearly 74 years ago.

Pawlik was born in Poland Dec. 19, 1929, but that is just the beginning of his story.

On Sept. 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, the world was forever changed, and for Pawlik, who was nearly 10 years old, life became a whirlwind journey.

The 1939 invasion resulted in Pawlik being separated from his family, never to see them again or really remember them. He explained at some point during World War II, he suffered a head injury from a piece of shrapnel, resulting in some memory loss.

“When they took me on that train, that’s when I lost my family. Never to be seen again,” he said. “Somewhere along the way, the train was stopped and the SS took over. They took us to a concentration camp — to Mauthausen, in Austria.”

After being separated from his family, Pawlik was immediately placed into several slave labor and concentration camps. For the next five years, he moved around Europe, forced to work under extreme conditions.

120103-F-YC840-020“We weren’t treated very well and one of the big things I know is if it hadn’t been for the older people, (the younger ones) wouldn’t have survived,” Pawlik said. “They did everything they could to help and that’s one of the reasons I now admire and support anything similar to what I went through.”

Prisoners, including Pawlik, were denied open access to bathrooms, water and clothing, and lived off small rations of potatoes, cabbage and beef or bean soup. They were expected to work long, hard hours and if they got sick or couldn’t work, the prisoners were killed.

Pawlik reminisced about many things he witnessed in concentration camps.

“It was called the Todesstiege — the Staircase of Death,” he explained. “They had people six abreast carrying 40 to 50 pound granite slabs up the steps to build the fence. You can imagine, with the condition the prisoners were in, what it was like. Most of the people were killed on those steps. They didn’t even have a chance.”

In the winter of 1944, things took a turn for the better.

While held in a concentration camp near Belgium, he and other prisoners were freed by a contingent of Polish forces with General Patton’s 3rd Army and 11th Armored Division. From here, he connected with the 11th AD and learned to speak English from the soldiers.

“Of course being rescued by the American Army was a super thing,” he said. “I was very fortunate to be picked up. You can imagine there were many of us in the same boat, and I was one of the lucky ones who survived. I was treated well and given a new life to look forward to.”

In Dec. 1944, Pawlik got his first taste of combat when the 11th AD engaged the Nazis in the Battle of the Bulge. By default, Pawlik became a 14-year-old American soldier, a Freedom Fighter, serving alongside U.S. forces.

He tells his friends and family that fighting against the Germans gave him an opportunity to rise up and fight those who took away his freedom, innocence and family.

“I realized we were on opposite sides,” he explained. “They were doing their job and I was doing my job. Of course, I didn’t agree with everything they did. But, that was their business.”

After fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and several other conflicts, Pawlik moved to Vienna, Austria, with a friend who was assigned to the 505th Military Police. Here, Pawlik was an invaluable resource to the unit he worked with by serving as an interpreter for the International Patrol.

Pawlik soon made it known that he wanted to come to the United States.

“Europe was not for me,” he said. “It was devastated. I had no people left, no family, no anything. As soon as I learned things about America, I made plans and did everything I could to get there, and I had help.”

There were more than 2 million applicants wanting to come to the United States in the summer of 1947. However, with Pawlik’s connections and recommendations, he was moved to the head of the list and received approval from six different countries in less than two months.

At the age of 17, he arrived in New York Harbor nearly three months later with just two suitcases and $120 in his pocket.

“We pulled into New York Harbor at night,” he explained. “When we were getting in, I asked who was in charge if I could stay on deck and see the lights of New York. I took a rope and I tied myself to a pole on the deck so I wouldn’t be blown away. I saw the Statue of Liberty, the beautiful lady with that flame. It was quite a moment for me.”

After graduating Albemarle High School, N.C., in 1950, a local businessman named Chuck Daniels, paid for Pawlik’s first two years of college at the University of North Carolina.

During his time in college, Pawlik was selected as the Outstanding Junior Air Force ROTC Cadet in the Nation and received the General Hap Arnold Silver Medal. He was inducted into three honor societies, all on top of being a co-captain of the university’s soccer and wrestling teams and working several jobs.

After becoming a U.S. citizen in July 1953 and graduating University of North Carolina in 1954, Pawlik commissioned into the Air Force.

“I wanted to pay the country back for being so great and nice to me,” he said. “I didn’t have much money or education, and I wanted to start out making something of myself. And of course, they gave me a flying job, and I loved flying.”

Throughout his career, Pawlik flew T-28s, T-34s, T-33s, B-47, B-52s, F-105s and F-111 aircraft. Overall, he flew 101 missions over North Vietnam, 21 over Laos, and 33 other missions and was hit by enemy fire seven different times.

Pawlik says that his story is not about being a prisoner of war; it’s about his first taste of freedom after being held captive and what those experiences have done for him.

“I owe freedom and the chance for a new life to this great nation,” Pawlik explained. “Back then, the idea of freedom, to me, was a wonderful thing. It really was. And all these years later, it still is. Freedom is still just a beautiful thing.”

PHOTO 1: Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Harry Pawlik, center, and his team pose together after earning first place in a bombing competition in Upper Heyford, England, in 1975. Pawlik is a concentration camp survivor who joined the Air Force after gaining citizenship. (Courtesy photo)

PHOTO 2: U.S. Air Force retired Lt. Col. Harry Pawlik reviews a speech written in his honor at his home in Greenville, N.C., Jan. 3, 2013. Pawlik, a World War II concentration camp survivor, recalled several obstacles from the time he was captured by Nazi forces at the age of 10, to the day he graduated from the Naval War College during a recent interview. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Aubrey White)