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Keep fighting: Air Guard officer beats cancer

ATLANTIC CITY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, N.J. (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

Lt. Col. John Fogarty felt unwell for nearly a year.

“I told my wife, ‘There’s something wrong, but I don’t know what it is,’” the senior New Jersey Air National Guard officer said.

A bout of the flu and pressure from his wife finally got Fogarty to the doctor in February of 2012.

The first tests revealed no problems, but the doctor recommended Fogarty get a colonoscopy as a precaution, since he was nearing 50. The technicians told him that test had gone well too, but then added, almost as an afterthought, that they’d found a “tiny little bump,” which they biopsied.

That was on a Wednesday. Two days later, Fogarty was on the phone in his office at the 177th Fighter Wing when he heard the words that changed his life.

“Well sir … you have cancer,” a nurse told Fogarty.

“That’s not exactly the way you would want to hear that -- the middle of the day, with a stranger on the phone,” Fogarty said. “It’s probably the worst thing you ever want to hear. It has so much negative connotation to it. What does it mean? Is it the end of life? What’s going to happen?”

Fogarty, currently the 177th Logistics Readiness Squadron commander, cancelled a meeting he was preparing for when he got the news.

“At that point I couldn’t even remember my name,” Fogarty said.

He went straight to the doctor’s office, where he was told that while the tumor was small, it was cancerous but treatable.

It was already Stage 3, meaning the cancer had spread into adjoining tissues and possibly the lymph nodes.

“The doctor asked if I knew a colorectal surgeon,” Fogarty recalled. “Out of dumb luck, I happen to know one of the best surgeons in Philadelphia.”

Fogarty was scheduled for surgery on June 23, 2012, at Drexel University’s Hahnemann University Hospital.

He had hoped the tumor could simply be removed and he could move on with his life.

It wouldn’t be that simple.

The doctors needed to remove six inches of intestines along with the tumor. The surgery also confirmed that the cancer had spread.

The spread of cancer into the nearby lymph nodes meant seven months of chemotherapy and radiation – and required Fogarty to have a port surgically implanted in his chest to enable those treatments. He also needed a colostomy for the duration of his treatments.

Fogarty went back to work. But battling cancer had become his second job.

“My protocol required a five to six hours of an infusion at the doctor’s office, and a 48 hour drip at home. I got chemo on Mondays, took Tuesday off, and came into work Wednesday,” he said.

With each treatment, he felt himself growing weaker.

He drove on, reasoning: “I have to endure this because I have a lack of options.”

Sleep was elusive because of the side effects of the treatments, including nausea and restless leg syndrome.

He chose to shield his children from learning about the extent of his illness and developed empathy toward older people who battle cancer.

“I can’t imagine how hard it is for older folks. I had enough trouble as a younger person,” Fogarty said.

He was grateful that he didn’t lose his hair, but surviving chemotherapy was only half of Fogarty’s battle. Radiation was an even tougher opponent.

“Every day I had to leave work for 15 or 20 minutes to get blasted,” Fogarty said. “They gave me small tattoos for alignment purposes. They fire this machine up, and it rotates around, hitting you with radiation. I was there for 45 treatments.”

The combination of chemo and radiation were brutal. Even the simplest parts of his daily routine, like a two block walk, became unbearable.

“I was at the staff meeting, feeling several shades of gray, and had to get back to my office,” Fogarty said. Two blocks seemed so far away. Every step was like stepping on shards of glass. I had become toxic. The pain was so unbearable, and I was rushed to the doctor’s to have the chemo stopped, and had to rest for a week.”

The desire to tackle things head on and to be strong had served Fogarty well throughout his military career, but the cancer and the treatments made this approach a challenge.

“I did the best I could, but I wasn’t focused,” Fogarty said. “I was angry; I was short tempered and irritable.”

As the treatments went on, Fogarty dug in.

“There are some nights, you have to be honest, you cry,” he said. “It hurts. It’s painful, but you get through it, because there’s always a better day. And you always figure tomorrow is going to be a better day. It was good when tomorrow was a better day.”

In March 2013, the cancer treatments ended. Two months later, the colostomy was reversed.

Fogarty said keeping a sense of humor was his best weapon in his fight against cancer.

“All you have to do is laugh,” Fogarty said. “There’s a time and place to be serious, but having humor in your life will get you through it. If you didn’t, it would eat you up. Everyone needs a release and mine was humor.”

More than two years after his diagnosis, Fogarty is feeling good, with a great outlook on the future.

“I find myself paying more attention to the little things, little moments,” Fogarty said. Colors are a little brighter, days are a little better.”

“We like to feel like we have control of our destiny, and plan it out. I wasn’t going to let this illness derail me. Everybody who has had cancer has their own battle, and you need to know up front that the battle can be successful.”

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