AF veteran embodies personal motto after overcoming cancer

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Jim Araos
  • U.S. Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs

(This feature is part of the “Through Airmen’s Eyes” series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)

A Boston native assigned to U.S. Air Forces Central Command embodies the motto "Boston Strong" every day by living his personal mantra of "Never Quit. Never Stop. Not Today. Not Ever."

Retired Lt. Col. Gary Rudman, the AFCENT Safety deputy director, was diagnosed with cancer in 2014.

Rudman retired from the Air Force May 1, 2011, as the USAFCENT Safety director and continued his service as a civilian at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina. 

Rudman said he soon began feeling frequent three-hour episodes of pain in his lower back region in January 2013. Doctors diagnosed the pain as a bulging spinal disc, and he continued to receive treatments for more than a year. 

He said he sought additional consultation in May 2014, from a pain management doctor when the pain in his back didn’t lessen. That doctor thought an object could be pushing against his nerves near the piriformis muscle, and when an MRI was ordered, it showed an inoperable, softball-sized tumor in his pelvic region. 

He then went to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston to have a CT scan and a needle biopsy to confirm if the tumor was cancerous. The biopsy confirmed cancer.

He underwent two rounds of radiation at the South Carolina Oncology Associates in Columbia in an effort to shrink the tumor, but there was no change in its size since discovery. Rudman said protocol was then to wait until his condition worsened before doctors could aggressively treat the tumor. 

However, Rudman was not willing to wait and said he decided to pack his bags for the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for a third opinion in March 2015. 

Doctors confirmed his tumor to be multiple myeloma after further testing and were able to treat him sooner in an effort to stop the cancer from spreading. 

Rudman was prescribed 28 day monthly cycles of chemotherapy pills, a monthly steroid pill and a Velcade shot which is used to treat this type of cancer. There were days when he said the chemotherapy zapped his strength, but through sheer determination, he never let cancer take away his positive outlook on life.

“He decided the cancer is not going to change his life,” said Robin Rudman, his wife. “The diagnoses helped him push aside the little stuff to focus on the bigger picture of life and what is important.”

Rudman said he brought a bike and cycling trainer stand to work on his physical fitness while waiting for a stem cell transplant in August 2015. He also provided Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation jerseys and bracelets to patients and hospital staff between treatments.  

“When I handed them free jerseys and bracelets, I saw the smiles glow on their faces,” he said. “If I can put a smile on somebody’s face or cut out some of the pain, it would be what I want to do with the rest of my life.”

He heard two words he wasn’t expecting Aug. 28, 2015 -- complete remission. Although multiple myeloma is an incurable cancer of the plasma cells in the bone marrow and will inevitably return, he said he has never let the illness prevent him from doing what he enjoys most -- helping others -- something he and Robin are determined to do.

“We put our heart and soul into fundraising efforts to raise money so people like me and (those) in the future gain the benefits,” Rudman said.

The Rudmans have raised more than $21,000 by participating in fundraising events for the MMRF. He has spent more than 256 hours improving his fitness and has traveled 2,348 miles on his bike. 

Rudman said he also served as a keynote speaker during competitive events such as Ironman triathlons, MMRF fundraisers and Air Force events to share his inspirational story. 

"I remember telling my wife and kids, if I make it through this, it will be a miracle,” he said prior to his speech at an Ironman Arizona competition. “When I got to the end, everyone stood up. It was one of those weird things where you could tell your message definitely reached out to different folks." 

Rudman is challenging himself by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in February. Rudman will be making the climb with a team of medical professionals, patients, caregivers, and Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation supporters.

Located in Tanzania, Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest point in Africa at an elevation of 19,341 feet. Rudman said he is taking on this challenge in the hopes of raising more than $200,000 for multiple myeloma patients.

“He has done a good job of fighting cancer and pursuing his goals with an indomitable spirit,” said Lt. Col. Joel Dopson, the 9th Air Force chief of flight safety.  “As a pre-training climb, he climbed a 14,000-foot mountain in Colorado. He will be able to do it again. He is tenacious and can overcome any circumstance.”

As Rudman prepares for his upcoming Mount Kilimanjaro hike, he has been taking pictures of current patients and those who have passed away from multiple myeloma and making a cloth banner.

“At the summit, I’m going to unfurl the banner out and take them with me to the top of the world,” he added.