My Toughest Battle: A US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel's Fight Against Cancer


This article was written exclusively for by Terry Williamson, a retired Lieutenant Colonel of the U.S. Air Force. In this article, Terry discusses his on-going battle with T-cell lymphoma and shares what has gotten him through this difficult time.

I was on a tour of duty to Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, moving casualties to higher level care when I started having night sweats. I thought it was the flu.

I returned to my home station at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, in the beginning of June, 2010, when I started losing weight and just didn't feel well. At the end of June, I was going to be moving to Scott Air Force Base in Illinois and went on a house hunting trip when I began having trouble breathing one night. I went to the base hospital the next day and was diagnosed with a pulled stomach muscle and was told that in 30 days I should be fine.

On our return trip to Kadena, my ankles swelled. I went to the Okinawa Naval Hospital ER, and they tested me for blood clots and heart attack. At this point, not one provider had touched me or asked for a blood sample.

Diagnosis and Treatment

In July, on our way to Illinois, my family and I decided to tour South Korea because my wife has family there. While in Korea, I was having trouble breathing and my ankles started to swell again, so I went to the Osan Air Base ER, and the provider told me that my spleen was enlarged. At that point I was sent to 121 Hospital in Seoul for a few days and then transferred to Samsung Hospital in Seoul. The providers at Samsung put me through PET exam, CT, and bone marrow biopsy and figured out that I had cancer in my spleen. I was inpatient there for about 10 days, and by the middle of August I was at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. The base hospital sent me to Illinois Oncology. The first time I saw the provider in September, I was told that the cancer in my spleen had to be removed.

In October, my spleen was removed – and it was a whopping 8 pounds. After seven hours of surgery, the surgeon did not find any cancer other than in my spleen. I was in the hospital for 10 days at St. Elizabeth’s in Belleville. After a month of recovery, I started chemo (CHOP) for six months. In May of 2011, I had my first stem cell transplant at Siteman Cancer Center. My twin brother donated his stem cells. After 30 days in the hospital I was released, and it took more than six months to recover.

Retirement and Relapse

After going through such an ordeal, I decided to retire from the Air Force after 27 years in August of 2012. It was around that time that my cancer came back. Again, I started chemo for six months and had a stem cell transplant in January of 2013 – using my younger brother’s stem cells this time. I believe it came back because my twin’s stem cells were too much of a match. I was released from Siteman Cancer Center in February, and a couple of weeks later readmitted for a blood clot in my neck, which was caused by the catheter. I left the hospital after a week and have been up and down with medications trying to create some balance.

Over the last three years, I have been through some good days and bad. My belief in god, my great family, and having a very positive attitude helps in the healing process. In January, I had a bone marrow biopsy and PET, and no T-cell lymphoma was detected. The folks at Scott Air Force Base Hospital, Illinois Oncology, and Siteman Cancer Center are professional and have provided awesome medical care and support to fight this evil disease.

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