Survival of the Fittest is a three-part series on an airman's battle with cancer while still serving in the Air Force.
JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. - Cancer does not discriminate among its victims. Cancer does not care whether a person is male or female, old or young. Cancer - specifically brain cancer - did not care how hard Michael Moyles worked to beat it and for a third time it chose to attack him without hesitation.
Michael Moyles, a boy with a dream of becoming an Air Force officer, followed that dream and commissioned in the Air Force in 1994.
Since his commission he married his longtime girlfriend and soon after was diagnosed with brain cancer. He fought and beat brain cancer, but four years later he would be faced with it once again. He strove to make himself mentally, physically, spiritually and emotional sound, so cancer would not have any ground to stand on. Michael defeated cancer a second time, but like a reoccurring nightmare it reared its ugly head back into his life once again.
In December 2008, Michael closed his eyes and placed his faith in his God, his perseverance, and his Air Force values, and entered brain surgery for a third time.
"Michael has always been obsessive about things, but this was different," said Angela Michael's wife. "It was more like he was attacking the cancer instead of the cancer attacking him ... he just fought with everything he had. The third recurrence was difficult for all of us, but his preparation paid off -- he was ready for it."
Michael would go through a third surgery that took several hours and once again he would come out unaffected, just as he had twice before. His resiliency not only baffled his family, but the actual doctors who operated on him as well.
Within a few weeks of surgery, Michael faced perhaps the greatest challenge yet - 42 days of combined chemotherapy and radiation, in one last all-out attempt to make sure the cancer would not return.
"It was time to give it everything we had," said Michael. "Surgery and chemotherapy were not enough anymore, so the doctors attacked it with all three weapons - surgery, followed by combined chemotherapy and radiation."
Every morning, for 42 consecutive days, Michael started the day with chemotherapy, then traveled an hour to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, to receive targeted, high-dose radiation treatments. At this time he was a major stationed at the Pentagon. Michael did not miss a day of work while going through chemo and radiation therapy.
"I could have 'played the cancer card' and just stayed home, but that isn't who I am and if I did it would have stopped me from doing what I love - serving in the Air Force," said Michael.
Every morning after going through chemo and radiation therapy, Michael would go for a run and then head to work. The chemo caused nausea and at times vomiting. The radiation caused fatigue that would follow Michael like a dark cloud above his head throughout the day.
"While working at the Pentagon I was often told I could leave to get rest, but I wouldn't," said Michael. "I didn't want to be treated differently and just wanted to do my job."
After the radiation and chemo was complete, doctors scanned Michael's brain and confirmed that he was cancer free. For the third time he was cancer free, but he couldn't help but feel skeptical.
"I had beaten cancer twice before, so the idea that it may return did enter my mind," said Michael. "Either way I was excited to have beaten it for a third time and was ready to continue on with my career as an Air Force officer."
The radiation took a toll on Michael even after treatment was over. He would still have to battle the fatigue from it.
"I just ran," said Michael. "The fatigue was always there, but exercising really helped to combat that."
Fatigue was not the only thing Michael would have to deal with from the 42 rounds of radiation. In July of 2009 when Michael woke up for his morning run he immediately noticed he could not open his eyes.
"My eyes were completely swollen shut," said Michael. "I had no idea what was wrong, but knew it wasn't good. My wife rushed me to the emergency room."
Michael informed the doctors of his previous medical surgeries and they began to perform tests to determine what was happening.
"The idea that cancer was back again ran through my mind, but I still didn't know what was the cause and I wasn't about to jump to any conclusions," said Michael.
Osteomyelitis was the word doctors uttered to Michael. The diagnosis determined that the 42 rounds of radiation killed the cancer, but it also compromised his immune system, allowing an infection that killed a third of Michael's skull as well.
"I was relieved to have an answer for what caused my eyes to swell shut, but unsure what this would mean for my future," said Michael.
A neurosurgeon performed a cranioplasty on Michael, removing a third of his skull plus a little extra to make sure the infection would not continue.
"They took the entire front portion of my skull out," said Michael. "Not only did they remove my skull, but they did not put anything in its place."
Michael would have to go six months without a third of his skull. During the six months, doctors took a mold of Michael's skull and began to rebuild him a brand new acrylic prosthetic.
"It was rather strange that I was without a large portion of my skull," said Michael. "Just skin on brain."
Because Michael's brain had no protection, he wore a helmet throughout the day while navigating through the hectic halls of the Pentagon.
"You certainly get some funny looks on the metro," said Michael. "I even had one person in the Pentagon tell me to remove my cover while indoors - I just smiled and thanked him. If only he knew!"
Besides wearing a helmet to protect his brain, Michael needed to take a large amount of anti-bacterial medication. The doctors installed a catheter port in his arm that could be hooked up to an IV, and received daily infusions of high-dose antibiotics. Doctors were clear that if the infection spread to his brain, it would likely be fatal. Undeterred, Michael actually ran another marathon and several half-marathons without his skull - and, to the dismay of his doctors, without his helmet as well. "If surgery, chemo, and radiation weren't going to stop me, neither was a cranioplasty," said Michael.
When the six months were up and the infection was gone, doctors fitted the acrylic piece made from a mold of Michael's skull in place and Michael was sewed up.
"Having a complete skull again was very reassuring," said Michael. "Not only was my risk of injury reduced, but I felt normal again. I didn't look like a cancer patient anymore. And I could get rid of that darn helmet!"
In 2010, after 42 rounds of radiation, 22 rounds of chemotherapy, 3 brain surgeries, 2 reconstructive surgeries and having run eight marathons Michael was finally free of cancer.
"It has been a wild ride," said Michael, "but my faith, my family, and fitness have brought me through."
During his battle with cancer Michael passed five medical boards.
"It's hard for them to tell you you're 'unfit for continued military service' when your lapping most of them around the track," said Michael jokingly.
Michael had a streak of 9 straight 100's on his Physical Fitness test during his battle with cancer.
"I found fighting cancer and the military mindset and lifestyle very well aligned," said Michael. "The military promotes physical fitness, advocates perseverance and provides an amazing support structure."
Michael took his passion for running and battling cancer in a new direction. He started the foundation, 'Team Michael Moyles.'
"I wanted to do something to give back to the cancer community and came up with the foundation," said Michael. "Family, friends and even people I've never met have given to the foundation."
Michael's foundation eventually teamed up with the Livestrong foundation.
"I had the honor of eating dinner at Lance Armstrong's home and talk with him personally," said Michael. "I wouldn't say he would remember me if you asked about me, but it was still a once in a lifetime opportunity."
One thing that came as a total surprise to Michael during his battle with cancer was when his wife became pregnant with their now 4-year-old daughter Ellie.
"I had already gone through chemo and was told I could not have kids so when we found out we were going to have a child I was ecstatic," said Michael. "She is my world now."
The thing or things that Michael used to get through everything were what he called his three 'F's.'
"Faith, Family and Fitness those are what come first for me," said Michael. "Every decision I make is dependent on those three things."
Michael or better known as Lt. Col. Michael Moyles at Joint Base Charleston is the 628th Mission Support Group deputy commander. He is in his in his 19th year of service and realizes his goal of becoming a general may not be in the cards anymore, but he looks forward to meeting with his first O-6 board this year.
"I set the lofty goal of becoming a general almost twenty years ago, but at the time I had no idea where my life or career was going to take me," said Michael. "I would love to achieve the rank of a full-bird colonel, but if not, I will still have had an amazing journey in the United States Air Force."