Encouragement to a military cancer fighter/survivor

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan M. Breeden
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan M. Breeden

Encouragement to a military cancer fighter/survivor

by D. Wischmeier
Stripes Okinawa

Cancer.  It’s a marathon.  Whether you are the patient or caregiver, the shock is indescribable.  On top of this life-altering diagnosis, most military members or immediate family are stationed far from extended family and life-long friends, and some cancer-diagnosis of military members require an immediate evacuation to larger medical centers.  There are support elements for U.S. service members such as veterans support organizations (VSOs) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) support groups, etc., but little to no resources for military cancer support.   Most cancer patients and their families do not know what to do.  The worst part is not just the diagnosis, but also the treatment, recovery, and (surprisingly to some) the return to normalcy. 

To know that we are not alone, fellow survivor support through hard times is critical.  Actress Fran Drescher stated that cancer, “[can] be an opportunity for true purpose.  Remember there can be many silver linings in even the bleakest of clouds.” Everyone needs support.  Everyone needs encouragement.  No matter who you are, survival encouragement can come from family, fellow survivors, or from reading other stories.

My advanced Stage III cancer diagnosis hit as a young U.S. Navy Lieutenant stationed in Washington State.  My perspective at the time was probably much like any young married man.  Life was really good up to that point!  My wife was pregnant with our second child (eventually born in the middle of my chemo regimen), and I had an amazing career flying in the Navy!  However, upon that fateful diagnosis when returning from a deployment, our lives turned upside down.  Questions swirled in my head through each painful moment of survival ranging from “why me?” “Why now?” “Will I survive to see my new baby boy?”  But even in those excruciating moments, joyful times were plentiful.  My wife, our parents, our community, multiple medical personnel, and my U.S. Navy squadron all provided more support than I can ever repay or fully describe.  I would survive that first difficult major cancer fight, only to have two more separate cancers arise subsequently five and then seven years later.  

Suffice to say the battle is long and difficult. I would not be here if not for the support of many amazing people.  And I am still active duty!  I am encouraged to share all of this because as a three-time cancer survivor, I can both empathize and sympathize.  At twenty-eight years old with an advanced stage III cancer, I had no shipmates or other young cancer survivors to turn to. However, since then I have become thankful for supporting other cancer survivors and caregivers.  

Therefore, in an effort to support those who do not have survivors to turn to, to help those still in shock, and to help friends or family who want to support, I share my story as just a small note to say that no one is alone in this medical fight!  Stories are meant to inspire and to remind everyone that what you see in people every day is not the whole picture.  We may not have survivor-tattoos (except scars!), or business cards telling our stories, but trust me, survivors and caregivers are out there!  From Presidents down to neighbors and shipmates and family, we’re all fighting for survival.

On to tangible support for survivors and caregivers:  From my personal experience and from multiple cancer fighters that I’ve known since my first of three cancer battles, what follows is a list of suggestions to support both the survivor and caregiver.  Spread the word, or tuck this list away for when you might need it.

We are never alone.  

To the Survivor:

  • Keep fighting!  Purpose remains and your story is not done!  Never stop fighting!
  • Get more than one medical opinion.  These are complex issues, and the more medical professionals looking at the condition, the better!
  • Do not look “online” for medical opinions.  Do not google “cancer.”  Trust me, nothing good comes from this.
  • Be vocal with someone about everything.  Keep talking.  Talk about anything.
  • Seek other survivors.
  • Fight for care!  At times, I’ve had to push for scans, or specialists, so do not be passive in your fight.  At other times, I had doctors who attempted to warn me to keep up with scans/checkups (as if I would forget!).
  • Accept care from friends and family.  This can be difficult to be vulnerable.  But receiving care is just as good as providing it!  It is therapeutic from both sides.

To the Caregiver:

  • Suggested Support Kits:  blankets (trust me, it gets cold when getting infusions), drink powders (we must drink a lot of water!), gum (saline and chemo cocktails leave a taste in our mouths), snacks, an Audible account, movies (not books), ball or knit caps, and small personal gifts.
  • The survivor wants normalcy, so talk often.  Even if your conversation is one-way.  Ask about them but also talk about “normal” topics that you would otherwise discuss anyway.
  • Understand the phases of treatment, and try to predict what physical support might be needed.
  • Sit in the chemo room.  At the start of treatment, the survivor is alert and talkative.  However, as weeks go on, simply being in the room is more that you can understand.  Being in the room during cat-naps are memories that will last.
  • Support the family!  Providing help to the spouse, and if applicable, parents and children can be received as well as if you’re helping the patient.

Now you are armed with ideas of how to help a survivor or to support a caregiver. Or if you are one of these, use this information, talk to people, and fight on.  Again, we are never alone.

Dennis Wischmeier is originally from Lake Stevens, Washington. He enlisted in the Marine Corps, commissioned through NROTC at George Washington University, and became a Naval Aviator for six years until his first cancer battle. Afterwards, Wischmeier transitioned to become a Naval Intelligence Officer and has served in Hawaii, Washington DC, and Yokosuka, Japan.  Additionally, he has an MBA and was a Congressional Fellow and Senate Liaison Officer.  After 22 years of service, he is excited to return to DC to work in the Pentagon.

The views presented are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.

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