Cadets claim victory in battles against cancer

Cancer survivor Cadet 1st Class Mark Puffenbarger joins his underclassman sister, Haley, for a photo. Cadet Puffenbarger survived a bout of lymphoma in 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Cancer survivor Cadet 1st Class Mark Puffenbarger joins his underclassman sister, Haley, for a photo. Cadet Puffenbarger survived a bout of lymphoma in 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- There will be no way of telling the two cadets who have survived cancer on graduation day.

Worth our attention

An Army doctor left Cadet 1st Class Gregory Rettler a message the night before telling the cadet not to eat or drink anything after midnight and to come to his office at 7 a.m. the next morning. 

The cadet suspected things were serious. Cancer was confirmed the next morning before the operation. 

"I prayed for God's peace and asked Him to reach others with this story...then I called my parents and commander," said the humanities major with Cadet Squadron 24. "My mom flew out immediately and my commander was at my bedside before I woke up from the first operation." 

Cancer survivors are known for appreciating life ... and fate. 

"My family and friends supported me--Mom was physically there through all of it--but definitely a trust in God's plan no matter what," was key said the cadet from Green Bay Wis. 

As a cancer victim, one is not in control. 

"Through it, I gained a sense of urgency to strive to be a better man and live out what I believe in," said Cadet Rettler, who will attend intelligence training at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, soon after graduation. 

"I try to make sure that I spend my days pursuing what is most important--only the best things should be worth our attention," he said.

Struck randomly 

In October, Cadet 1st Class Mark Puffenbarger started having sharp chest pain at night due to the tumor growing and pushing other internal organs out of the way. 

"It was off and on and I ignored it and it mostly went away," said the systems engineering management major with Cadet Squadron 17. 

"At the very beginning of November, I developed a cough that wouldn't go away. After a little over three weeks I went to the cadet clinic. They figured it was a virus, but decided to do a chest x-ray to see if it was pneumonia, just in case. There was a huge spot on the x-ray, so they asked some more questions." 

After hearing he had lost about 20 lbs in the last month, doctors scheduled a CT scan.
Cadet 1st Class Gregory Rettler "The results came back that day and they called me in to tell me I had a mass about the size of a football in my left chest cavity," said the cadet from Fairfax Station, Va. "Due to my age, it was almost certainly some sort of Lymphoma." 

Medical officials thought it was lymphoma. They did a great job breaking the news. 

"They couldn't be sure yet, but they were about 90 percent sure," said Cadet Puffenbarger. "The doctor said it had a very high cure rate and most people go on to live long healthy lives. Since he answered the 'are you sure' and 'how bad is it' questions, my first question was to ask if this was going to mean I'd lose my physical qualification status." 

"My type of cancer was: Primary Mediastinal Diffuse Large B Cell Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma," said the cadet. It was about the size and shape of a football when I started chemotherapy at the beginning of December. I had a chemo dose every three weeks from December until mid-March. Toward the beginning of April, I started the radiation therapy and had a dose every weekday until last Tuesday." 

It seemed to strike him randomly. No one really knows why. 

"It helped being here with friends to keep my mind off of the treatment and the side effects," Cadet Puffenbarger said. "I kept busy with school and military duties also kept me occupied. I think had I left the Academy for the treatment and had nothing to do or many friends nearby, I wouldn't have been nearly as active in my treatment and I would have dwelled on it more because I would have had nothing else to do. Staying at the Academy during my treatment was really good for me." 

Self-pity is not one of this cadet's traits. 

"For one, I certainly have a lot more medical knowledge now than I could have ever wanted to know from doing lots of research about this, other cancers, and related topics," he said. "I have been optimistic the entire time and I think that really helped. It doesn't help to dwell on it or ask 'why me'. It really helps to keep a positive attitude and stay as active as you can. Surround yourself with friends."