News: The Long Road to Recovery: Falcon Paratrooper Beats Cancer and Expectations
Story by Sgt. Kissta DiGregorio
FORT BRAGG, N.C. – Soldiers are known for fighting battles. However, some battles come unexpected, off the battlefield, and leave a soldier fighting for his life.
“People my age don’t get cancer,” was 21-year-old Spc. William Lay’s first thought when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.
In April 2009, Lay, a small engine repair technician with G Battery, 2nd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team “Black Falcons”, visited sick-call concerning a cyst on his shoulder. The biopsy results came back malignant, and further testing led to the discovery of cancerous cells in his abdomen and underarms as well. “We were shocked,” said Lay’s wife, Becci. “[The doctors] tell you everything at once. It was very confusing.”
Doctors suggested that he be sent to the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Bragg, a unit specifically for wounded soldiers that allows them to recover while continuing to serve. However, he did not want to abandon his unit. He received a great amount of support from his chain of command, who told him to spend time at home, take as long as he needed to recover, and return to the unit when he felt he was ready. Knowing his unit was behind him all the way, Lay began his treatment.
He visited Womack Army Medical Center every two weeks to receive chemotherapy intravenously, which made him nauseated and fatigued. “I was sick as a dog,” Lay said.
He also underwent countless CAT scans, lung tests and endured a painful bone marrow biopsy, in which a needle was inserted into his bone to remove blood and bone marrow to test for spread of the disease. Adding insult to injury, because chemo kills all fast-growing cells, his hair began to fall out.
The first day of his treatment was the worst, Lay recalled, because he didn’t know what to expect. When the side effects from the chemo kicked in, he was stopped in his tracks. “My stomach felt like it was on fire,” he said. “It was the most uncomfortable feeling ever.”
Although his doctors told him to rest, he was determined to stay in shape. It wasn’t until he went to the gym one day halfway through his treatment that he realized what a toll the disease was taking on his body. “I was trying to run on the treadmill but I couldn’t keep my breath,” he said. “I couldn’t even run one mile.”
However, what made him feel the worst was feeling disconnected from his friends and seeing them pass him by. Although he was visited regularly, it wasn’t the same, he said. It was difficult for him to be the same person when he was constantly tired and sick.
His peers were also being promoted, attending schools, and training, while he felt left behind. Most of them had attended the Warrior Leader Course, became non-commissioned officers, transferred to different units or left the Army altogether. “It was like everyone was on fast-forward and I was just trying to keep up,” he said.
After seven months of fighting, Lay received news that the cancer was gone, but as a precaution he continued with chemo until January 2010.
The best part about completing chemo was that his hair grew back, he laughed. “I looked normal again.”
“He went from no hair to a full head of hair,” said Staff Sgt. Francisco Campos, platoon sergeant with G Battery. “Now he doesn’t want to get a haircut.”
Ready and willing to go back to work at full force, he was disappointed yet again as the brigade prepared to deploy to Haiti in January in support of Operation Unified Response, and was told he was not cleared to join his comrades. “I was mad at the time,” he said. “I wanted to go.”
As a member of the brigade’s rear detachment, Lay took the opportunity to hit the gym, because although he had returned to work, he had fallen behind on his physical training. He was now faced with the challenge of getting used to a regular training regimen again after being out of commission for almost a year.
In addition to morning PT, he frequented the gym and the pool. “I was just working to get back in shape,” Lay said.
But, when First Sgt. John Okerson, G Battery’s first sergeant, informed his troopers of the Army Birthday 10-miler on June 11, he found a way to prove to his peers and himself that he was back. His friends and chain of command were shocked that he wanted to participate in the run, he said, which fueled his motivation even more.
He joined the battalion’s 10-miler team and began preparing for the big event. Although medical personnel told him to take it slow, he trained with the team three days a week for six weeks. His teammates and friends were there to keep him motivated. “He was always in high spirits,” Campos said.
He had trouble keeping up during team training and on battery runs, but his continuous improvement and constant praise from his peers drove his desire to succeed. “I felt like Forrest Gump,” he joked. “‘Just keep running.’”
The morning of the run, Lay stood at the starting line and waited for the first cannon to sound, signifying the start of the race. “Half the company wasn’t doing the run,” Lay said. “But I was.”
The 10 miles took a toll on him, just as it did other participants. “I was dead tired,” he said. “But I was determined to make it.”
And he did. In just one hour and 22 minutes, Lay crossed the finish line, the 554th runner of more than 1500 participants.
As he stood on the sidelines, watching the rest of the runners complete the event, he said it was satisfying to see how many people he beat, and just how far he had come in the last year.
Lay attended the Basic Airborne Refresher course in June, and is anxiously waiting for a chance to jump again. He is also scheduled to attend WLC himself in July. After a year of feeling as though his life was on hold, this Paratrooper continues to find ways to catch back up and look toward the future.
“I’m back,” he said. “What’s next?”
This work, The Long Road to Recovery: Falcon Paratrooper Beats Cancer and Expectations, by SSG Kissta DiGregorio, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.