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Airman Reflects on Cancer Diagnosis 8 Years Later

U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Paul Martin, the wing command and control functional manager assigned to the 180th Fighter Wing, poses for a photo at a desk May 30, 2018 in Swanton, Ohio. Martin was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in February of 2010 and still battles cancer to this day. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Airman 1st Class Hope Geiger)

Story by Airman Hope Geiger
180th Fighter Wing Ohio National Guard

Feeling sick, Chief Master Sgt. Paul Martin, wing command and control functional manager assigned to the 180th Fighter Wing, visited his family doctor. The doctor felt a lump in his neck, and told him it was most likely a cyst that would go away on its own. A little shocked, he went home and monitored it over time. When it continued to grow, he returned to his doctor.

The doctor conducted a biopsy, and Martin could not believe the results. He had cancer.

In February of 2010, Martin’s doctor diagnosed him with thyroid cancer
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“It’s like, when the doctor told me, everything stopped after that,” said Martin. “They kept talking, telling me what to expect and what I had to do, but it just went right out. All I could think was what is this going to mean.”

Martin’s doctor scheduled him for an extensive surgery a month later to remove his entire thyroid gland, parathyroid gland, several lymph nodes, and part of the muscle wall in his neck where the tumor had spread.

He spent the following two days in the intensive care unit to recover and then underwent three intensive rounds of radioactive iodine treatments.

“The first round I went through was basically a liquid I had to drink out of a straw that was in what looked like a lead lined paint can,” said Martin. “It was all bizarre, after I drank the fluid out of the can, they ran a geiger counter over me to see if it had flowed down to my stomach.”

These treatments made him radioactive, requiring him to stay three feet away from others for three days.

Since Martin’s tumors grew so rapidly in the beginning, the doctor continued to monitor him every 90 days following his surgery. At these appointments he had ultrasounds, positron emission tomography scans and blood draws.

“I repeated this cycle several times because I did have some tissue reappear, so I had to do another round of radioactive treatment,” said Martin.

“My body is producing thyroid antibodies and the number is supposed to be, zero within the first year after radiation,” explained Marin. “There should have been no thyroid antibodies in my system. The body produces that as its own way of fighting off the disease, so it being present in my system suggests that there are some cancerous tissues.”

The doctors, concerned about these numbers rising, increased the frequency of tests.

“I was constantly going in and giving more,” Martin said. “More blood, more ultrasounds, and more scans.”

But the doctors could not find an explanation for these antibodies.

It’s been eight years and he still visits the doctors every few months.

“Last year my oncologist kind of threw up his hands, so to speak, and wasn’t sure what to do with my case anymore,” said Martin. “They couldn’t find any new tumors, but my bloodwork suggested there was a cancerous tumor somewhere in my body.”

In June of 2017, Martin visited an endocrinologist and spent a few days going through different kinds of tests, and the endocrinologist couldn’t find anything either.

“It’s been a long journey,” Martin said. “I don’t worry about it as much as I did initially. As time has gone on I just accepted that I had to deal with this and just move forward. I feel pretty healthy, I just don’t have the energy I use to.”

The thyroid gland impacts every other system in the body and regulates metabolism. Martin’s energy plummeted after his thyroid removal. The doctors gave him medication to take every day for the rest of his life to fix this problem.

“For some of the thyrogen scans, I had to go off my medication for some time,” said Martin. “I felt so exhausted I couldn’t open my eyes. Since the thyroid controls your energy, when I had to go off my medication I just felt like my legs were lead blocks, I could barely move or even get off the couch.”

He had to deal with the anxiety that came along with all the stressors of the unknown

“I just thought the worst because I just didn’t know,” said Martin. “When they dropped the ‘C’ word on me I was terrified, and my daughter was young then, so I had to make sure all my ducks were in a row.”

The endless support from his family, friends, coworkers and church has helped him tremendously throughout this whole process.

“Fortunately I worked at the 180FW full time just before it happened, and at the time, Maj. Gen. Bartman was my boss and Brig. Gen. Nordhaus was the alert detachment commander and both of them really supported me doing whatever I needed to do to get back on my feet,” Martin said. “Maj. Gen. Bartman gave me advice that helped put me at ease.”

“Chief Master Sgt. Martin is a great example of resiliency,” said Maj. Gen. Mark Bartman, current Ohio adjutant general and Martin’s former wing commander. “He was able to fight and beat his cancer, make it to Chief and be a leader for new Airmen, I am very proud of him.”

Martin also reached out to Alina Fuller, the director of psychological health at the 180FW when he needed someone to talk to.

“My daughter was about 10 or 11 at the time,” said Martin. “I started thinking the worst like, ‘Am I going to be here to see my daughter grow up and graduate?’ so I reached out to Alina for some help and she helped my entire family and that means a lot to me.”

Martin’s family contained no prior history of this kind of cancer, so he’s thankful he went to the doctor when he felt sick.

“It’s hard to focus when you’re trying to provide for your family and hold down a job and a career, and when something like this pops up in the middle, it kind of side tracks everything,” said Martin. “So having the support here, from my family and from my church was very helpful to me.”

Martin hopes his journey will encourage others to take better care of their own health.

“Now, I tell people to go get a physical done every year,” Martin said. “Don’t take your health for granted even if you don’t have a history of anything you never know what could happen.”

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