Leading with cancer

  • Published
  • By Col. Wayne Monteith
  • 50th Space Wing commander
Six months ago I would have never used leadership and cancer in the same sentence. I would likely have not even used these two words in the same week.

That was before Dec. 13, 2010.

I am a wing commander and I am working through colon cancer. I'll be honest; if not in my current position I would have done my best to hide this illness from all but my immediate family. Let's face it, senior military leaders do not get ill, and if we do we certainly don't discuss it openly. But I believe there is a reason for my illness, and it may be as simple as advocating the benefits of routine screenings recommended by our medical professionals.

The week of Dec. 6, 2010, I had one of the best experiences of my career. The officer and enlisted leaders of the 50th Space Wing spent the week in San Antonio visiting the outstanding Airmen at the 737th Training Group at Lackland Air Force Base, specifically those who conduct basic military training, and the defenders at Camp Bullis. The highlight of my career was the opportunity to be the reviewing official at a BMT graduation. Brand new Airmen standing tall on the parade field and a gallery full of proud family and friends -- I was never prouder to be an Airman and was convinced my life could not get any better.

After all, I was serving and leading a phenomenal wing, I was blessed with a wonderful family and dear friends, and my health appeared to be far better than my age might suggest.

While I didn't "feel" it, in April of last year I turned 50. Along with hitting the half century mark, at 50 the mighty medics recommend a colonoscopy, which is a great input for most, but I was far too busy for such mundane affairs. And quite frankly, even if I expanded my "bucket list" to ten thousand items, a colonoscopy still wouldn't appear. A root canal, maybe, but someone invading my personal space, even for a good reason? No way!

The wing had an ORI/UCI to pass, satellites to fly, brand new base housing to fill and combat effects to provide to the war fighter, and, quite frankly, I had a life to live. In my mind, the "scope" was an unnecessary task to be avoided. Because I did not make it a priority, it was eight months before I would ultimately get one. After all, there was no rush. My last physical fitness test score was 96.4. I was in great physical shape and the last time I missed a day of work for illness was in January 1990 when I was a second lieutenant. Finally, every medical test before December showed I was healthy. In other words, I didn't need a colonoscopy in my life and I didn't want one either.

Fortunately for me, my secretary grew tired of rescheduling my "special" appointment and decided I would not put this off any longer -- unbelievable, the audacity of people who care. Shortly after getting the procedure performed by the tremendous doctors and staff at Evans Army Medical Center, my physician walked into my room and tried to tactfully explain that what he had expected to be an uneventful, routine procedure had instead revealed a pronounced tumor in my large intestine. What followed was a blur of medical jargon, hand wringing and averted eyes, and if not for my wonderful bride of 30 years I would have only remembered a vague discussion about major surgery within the week.

There had to be a mistake. I exercise almost daily. I have a healthy diet. I don't get sick. In short, the medical staff had to be in the wrong room, chatting with the wrong patient. Not quite; right room, right patient, right diagnosis. Damn. Within weeks, they performed surgery and started me on six months of chemotherapy.

Cancer does not define me, my life, my Air Force career or my command experience. I have family and friends whose support is unwavering, leaders who understand my temporary limitations and a wing that has rallied to provide support. While I have good days and bad days, I am fortunate. I have this illness not because I failed to take care of myself or lead a good life. I have this illness because it does not discriminate; it attacks the young and the healthy. It does not care about race, color or religion. It is simply an illness, nothing more, nothing less.

I will beat this, continue to serve our great nation and continue to serve and lead the professional men and women of the 50th Space Wing. But I have a message for those who think they do not need routine preventative medical procedures: Don't wait. I am living proof that early diagnosis can turn a potential disaster into a speed bump. Had I (or my secretary) waited much longer, I would be writing a very different article.

But I'm not.

And yes, I thank my secretary every single day.

(Col. Monteith is a former 21st Space Wing vice commander.)