Grad Week Feature: Cadet's resiliency helps in battle against cancer

  • Published
  • By Jennifer Spradlin
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Parker Hammond was in the best shape of his life.

The Air Force Academy cadet had recently completed a challenging global obstacle race and rebounded after a string of sports injuries ended his Falcon football career.

But cancer doesn’t discriminate.

During his junior year, Hammond found a lump on his testicle.

“I think a lot of people are scared to say something when they find something that isn’t right,” Hammond said. “Initially, I wanted to do the same thing, but my dad was like ‘don’t be an idiot, go and [get seen].’”

He was walking on the Terrazzo between classes when he was called to return to the hospital for additional testing. Hammond explained he was in the middle of finals week.

“They said, ‘we didn’t want to tell you over the phone, but a radiologist looked at the ultrasound, and it looks like testicular cancer,’” Hammond said. “I was in awe; I kept walking. I didn’t even really process it until five minutes later, when I got a call from a surgeon at Fort Carson to schedule me for surgery that day.”

Hammond grew up in Colorado Springs and played football at Pine Creek High School. His family still lived in the area, which he said, turned out to be a real blessing. He went home, packed a bag, and drove himself to the Army base for surgery to remove his testis.

“In a weird way, and I guess it’s kind of a blur, I wasn’t super emotional,” Hammond said. “We were hoping it might be stage 1, that it hadn’t spread.”

Hammond did his best to return to his normal life. He focused on recovering from the surgery, adjusting to his loss, and his summer airmanship training in powered flight. But then he got the call that his cancer had spread to his lymph nodes and was stage 3. He could have more surgery or opt for chemotherapy.

After consulting with his family in July, he started a nine-week chemotherapy regimen called BEP for short but comprised of three main drugs: bleomycin, etoposide and platinum. The side effects left him fatigued, nauseous and sensitive to light.

“We watched Parker deal with tough situations as an athlete, and we knew that he could persevere through challenges, but this took things to a new level,” said James Hammond, Parker’s father. “Other than a few down days, his attitude was mostly one of dealing day-by-day and during chemo, sometimes hour-by-hour with the situation.”

Parker credits his religious faith above all else for helping him through the toughest moments of his cancer treatments. He is also grateful for the support of his family, friends and members of his squadron who sent weekly cards of encouragement.

As he grappled with his own mortality and faltering health, Parker faced an uncertain future in the Air Force. It was possible he might graduate, but not commission, unless he was able to obtain waivers from the Air Force Academy and Headquarters Air Force. 

“I felt like spending three years at the Academy, wearing the uniform every day, if I got through this and went into remission – I deserved to commission and graduate,” he said. “If anything, I would bring that to the table [as a leader]. Cancer being as common as it is, I’m bound to have an Airman or officer around me who goes through it or a family member or spouse. I felt I could have a positive impact on others.”

Parker learned his cancer had gone into remission on September 13. Several months later, in January, he was told that he’d been granted the necessary waivers to commission.

Little more than a year since he learned he had cancer, he is slated to walk across the stage with the rest of his classmates as a commissioned second lieutenant.

“There are many things that we are proud of, but most of all, it is the person who Parker is.  His faith, his intellect, his strength, his heart for others, his ability to lead, his willingness to serve his country - all of these things are part of who Parker is,” James said.   

Parker will have blood and imaging tests for the next five years to screen for recurrence.

“Living with constant anxiety about the future doesn’t benefit you at all. It’s counterproductive,” he said. “I get nervous a few days before each of my test days, but as much as possible, I try to wake up and be thankful for three things. If you wake up, and the first thing in your mind or out of your mouth is I’m thankful for this, this, and this, your outlook on your whole day will change.”

Parker is set to become a munitions and missiles maintenance officer; although, at some point he’s interested in going to medical school. He’s been open about his cancer journey, posting about it on his personal social media accounts and talking with his former high school football team.

“The moral of my story is: please check yourself,” he said. “[Testicular] cancer is something we should feel comfortable talking about in the open.”