Airman’s battle doesn’t end after loss to cancer

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Joshua Stahl
  • National Air and Space Intelligence Center Space, Missile, and Forces
Breast cancer is a disease well beyond the October Pink Ribbon campaign designed to raise critical awareness. It is an incurable cancer that takes the lives of beautiful people; like my wife.

According to the American Cancer Society, “the five-year survival rate after diagnosis for stage 4 breast cancer patients is 22 percent. This percentage is considerably lower than at earlier stages. At stage 3, the five-year relative survival rate is 72 percent. At stage 2, it’s over 90 percent. Because survival rates are higher in the early stages of breast cancer, early diagnosis and treatment is crucial.”

My wife, Erin, was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer following her first mammogram at age 40 in late 2010. Up to that point, she had followed the common guidelines regarding when to start screenings. Further, there was no reason to be concerned leading up to the test; she did not have a palpable lump or any other visible symptoms. The scans, however, were undeniable – the disease was in her breast, lymph nodes, and her bones. This meant it was no longer curable.

A diagnosis such as this was incomprehensible. And as parents to a seven-year-old daughter and one-year-old son, the news was especially devastating.

This was a turning point in my life and a moment during which I was forced to make decisions and face a journey I never imagined. It was easy to be scared, feel anxious, and wonder why such a horrible thing was happening to the one I love. Erin needed me though, so I had to remain strong and resilient. Breaking down and focusing on the unknown was not going to provide my wife the support and comfort she needed during the fight of her life. I could have easily drowned in my own despair and admittedly, I was very angry and questioned my faith. But in the end, faith and core values saved me and continue to guide me on a new journey.

Erin’s prognosis based on medical data was approximately a two-year median survival rate -- she survived 4.5 years. She did both hormonal therapy and chemotherapy as well as a trial that included immunotherapy. During this period I became an arm chair expert on breast cancer, constantly reading articles, journals, attending conferences, looking for some treatment that could provide benefit when she failed or could no longer tolerate the one she was on. I would badger her doctors with questions on treatments I read about.

In addition to being an advocate for Erin, I also had to manage my Air Force career. I was faced with difficult career choices, but the answer was always clear: her needs came first. I knew I had to take care of my family and my career goals would take a backseat. Erin was always there to support my career, in many ways to the very end, but now it was my turn to support her.

Erin remained brave throughout her battle, having a positive attitude almost all the way. She showed a strength that was beyond just courageous. She remained a good mother, wife, and friend throughout her battle. She never gave up, regardless of the continued diagnoses and further progression of the disease to her vital organs.

My wife’s battle came to an end March 19, 2015. This is where my story of becoming a breast cancer survivor really starts. My survival story is that of an active duty Airman who is living after the loss of my beloved partner and mother of my children to breast cancer.

Erin passed away while I was a student at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. I’m still grateful for the support my family and I received from my classmates, Airmen, leadership, faculty, staff, and family members immediately following her passing. The outpouring of help was tremendous and helped me through those first couple months. That said, I knew I could not rely on this level of support forever and I needed to build a plan. This plan was unlike any I had ever been tasked with in my Air Force career, as it required me to consider how I alone would now raise my two beautiful children without their mother.

Upon graduation from school, I took a humanitarian assignment to Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, near where my wife had been laid to rest and closer to my family. I admit that I was not prepared to be a single-father. As such, my strategy was to take things one day at a time. I focused on the health and welfare of my children, which included their physical, mental, and spiritual needs; and I developed a routine. I am still experimenting with childcare options, and I’m learning what works best for our family.

I always ask myself what am I missing or what else do my children need. Sometimes the answer is clear and other times I discover things a bit late. I have come to realize Erin was not only my wife, but also my wingman.

The Air Force has great resources to help, but at the end of the day my advice to anyone forced to take a similar journey, is to realize things will be different, but can be manageable. I am a very independent and proud person, but I had to be willing to ask for help and lean on my family, friends, and Air Force family at times. The most important thing I can share with others is the need to stay resilient and focus on life – both short and long-term. This is one thing I cannot stress enough: do not be afraid to seek help for yourself or your children to maintain your mental and spiritual health.

A new chapter of my life is being written due to breast cancer. It still breaks my heart to know that my children are growing up without their mother, but I pray for guidance and wisdom every day to be the best parent I can for them. I remain their father.