Air Force colonel beats cancer, soars high

  • Published
  • By Maj. Veronica Kemeny
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Col. Michael Stapleton, 49th Fighter Wing Operations Group commander at Holloman AFB, N.M., has come a long way since being diagnosed with cancer in 2006.

"I was diagnosed with cancer when I was the 43rd Fighter Squadron commander at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida," said Colonel Stapleton. "I had, what appeared to be the stomach flu, and was feeling very weak. 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. The flight doctor thought it was more than the flu and decided to check my blood. He started us down the right path due to his attentiveness and thoroughness. In his words, I just didn't look like myself. Score the first save for Air Force medicine."

They discovered his red and white blood cell levels were low -- half of where they should be.

"We chased a lot of things until finally we checked my bone marrow," he 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 and I was off to Houston for medical treatment. Again, another Air Force save."

He was diagnosed with cancer on 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, Texas, for treatment."

The facility's Web site states they have been ranked as one of the top two hospitals in cancer care every year since U.S. News & World Report began its annual "America's Best Hospitals" survey in 1990.

TRICARE is truly some of the best medical treatment care you can receive, according to Colonel Stapleton.

"Whenever you or your dependants 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 your benefit if you are smart about your disease/condition and know where the centers of excellence are for your disease. You need to get smart and be your own advocate. 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 worked a miracle and caused the F-22 pilot's cancer to go into remission.

While he was waiting for a bone marrow donor match, he was prescribed a new drug which within four months had him in remission. He did not have to undergo the bone marrow transplant as originally expected.

"It's a miracle if you ask me," he said. "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," the F-22 pilot 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."

Now that cancer is no longer a death sentence, Colonel Stapleton has words of wisdom 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. There are lots of support organizations out there too. You are not in this alone!"

The cancer experience did not change his convictions 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 grey. I think it has helped me galvanize my priorities.

"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," Colonel Stapleton 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."

His friends in the Air Force rallied around him during this difficult time.

"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."

Colonel Stapleton knows flying is a privilege, and 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-22s, T-38s routinely, and under instructor supervision I have had the chance to get into the MQ-1 and MQ-9 operations. Our operators and maintainers on the flight line 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," laughed Colonel Stapleton. "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. I feel like my time is running short and that I owe so much for the chance to be well again," said Colonel Stapleton.

The future still holds many surprises that are bright and exciting for the 49th OG commander.

"I will move this summer, likely to a staff job," said Colonel Stapleton. "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 and being on the 'Fightin' Forty Niner' team."

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

"I will forever be indebted to those who fed, supported and prayed for me and my family. 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."