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Surviving the Crisis

By Lt. Col. Bryan Patchen 2nd Bomb Wing Command Post

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You have cancer. Feb. 26, 2008, I heard those dreaded words.

After a few months of feeling run down, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. With that diagnosis came the expected whirlwind of thoughts: Will I survive? What about my family? Is my career over? Will I ever fly again? What exactly is a thyroid?

The next few months were a blur--part due to the speed at which events occurred, part due to the lack of medication/thyroid hormone that led to my body partially shutting down. When I came through the other side, many of the previously mentioned questions still remained. Although, I now know more about a thyroid and what it did than I ever wanted to know.

As I began my recovery, I found several things to keep me going. First, my family. My children motivated me to get up and get moving, and I was determined to be there for them. Second, the LIVESTRONG Foundation and their message of hope and encouragement made me realize that my low point in life was nothing compared to the alternative, and I was lucky they caught it early. But the simplest part--I was not going to let cancer beat me.

My illness let me know the true limits of my body. Earlier complaints of being tired, or having back pain, or any other excuse paled in comparison. I decided that I was not going to stay down--I was going to push myself as hard as I could to see if I could find my limit.

My journey began with a sprint triathlon the next year. From there, things really took off. I ran the Paris and Berlin Marathons to raise money for LIVESTRONG, and decided to push further. My most challenging event, the Antwerp Ironman 70.3 went off without a hitch. In total, I've competed in more than 20 triathlons, marathons and half marathons since my diagnosis.

More importantly, however, I've connected with cancer survivors worldwide and realized how important hope can be. Although my form of cancer is one of the most treatable, it is life-altering--both in terms of health impact and the fact that I will be living under the threat of reoccurrence for the rest of my life. My successful recovery has allowed me to show other cancer survivors that life after treatment is possible--and sometimes at a higher level than ever before. Throughout each event, the thought of the millions of people worldwide, and several of my close friends, living with cancer kept me moving.

What was the impact on my AF career? I made it through my medical evaluation board and was put back on flying status. As of Feb. 26, 2013, I am a five-year cancer survivor and qualified B-52H Stratofortress pilot.

To me, the key to successfully surviving my crisis was the hope found around me, and the motivation to help others once I was through the worst part. When I heard those three fateful words I was faced with a choice--give in to the self pity or push through and see what was on the other side. I pushed through, met many inspiring people along the way, and came out the other side a better person. After all this, one thing is clear: I had cancer--cancer didn't have me.