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NCO remains positive despite medical challenges

  • Published
  • By Jillian Speake
  • 377th Air Base Wing public affairs
Stay positive about the choices you make in life ... and the ones you didn't, is the motto Staff Sgt. Cedric McMillon lives by ever since his world was turned upside down just four months ago.

In February, Sergeant McMillon, an electronic warfare technician with the 58th Maintenance Squadron here, woke up with an upset stomach that would not go away. After several weeks of discomfort and a lot of Imodium®, he was referred downtown to see a gastroenterologist, a doctor who specializes in the digestive system.

About a week before his appointment, Sergeant McMillon noticed he was increasingly short of breath when doing normal day-to-day activities. He knew this wasn't normal for a guy who scored a 92 on his last physical fitness test, but decided to wait until his appointment to have it checked out.

On March 19, Sergeant McMillon showed up for his appointment and as is typical, was brought into the nurse's station to check his vitals. The nurse noticed almost immediately that Sergeant McMillon was having difficulty breathing while trying to answer her routine questions. She listened with a stethoscope to his lungs and said she couldn't hear anything on the left side. Moments later, the doctor came out and said the same thing.

"He said he wasn't a lung doctor but he knew something was very wrong and that I had a bigger problem than just my stomach," Sergeant McMillon said. "He said I needed to go to the emergency room right away."

Sergeant McMillon said he didn't panic at the doctor's words of caution but instead felt curious about what could be wrong with his lungs. He called his girlfriend who took him to the Presbyterian Hospital emergency room, where doctors would take x-rays of his lungs to determine the problem.

"At the time, I knew something was pretty serious because they did the x-ray pretty quick and then I saw the nurse's face change when she looked at the x-ray," Sergeant McMillon said. "She kept asking me if I was feeling all right and then the doctor came in and told me my left lung had collapsed."

After a few more tests, the doctors found Sergeant McMillon's lung had collapsed due to fluid buildup between the chest cavity and the lung.

That evening, the doctors inserted a chest tube into Sergeant McMillon's left lung to help drain the fluid and conducted a Computed Tomography Scan, commonly referred to as a CT or CAT scan, to get a better look at his lungs. The scan came back showing a tumor and lymph nodes on his right side and later a bone marrow biopsy was performed which ultimately tested positive for cancer cells.

Sergeant McMillon was diagnosed with T-Cell Lymphomas Leukemia, a type of blood cancer in which certain cells of the lymph system become cancerous.

"I went in to the hospital on March 19 and stayed until May 5," Sergeant McMillon said. "I basically went into the ER and never came back out."

The doctors started Sergeant McMillon on an aggressive treatment plan of chemotherapy very quickly after his diagnosis. He was admitted to the oncology ward at Presbyterian Hospital where doctors could begin chemotherapy while still monitoring his chest tube and fluid buildup.

During that time, doctors also conducted tests on the fluid in Sergeant McMillon's lungs which later came back positive for cancer cells as well. The doctors hoped the chemotherapy would slow down the fluid buildup in the lungs and about four and half weeks into his hospital stay, the buildup stopped and the chest tube was removed.

A Groshong® catheter was then inserted into one of his veins just below the collarbone which contained narrow, plastic-like tubes that would allow doctors to draw blood, administer chemotherapy, and provide IV fluids without having to poke Sergeant McMillon with a needle multiple times during his hospital visits.

Sergeant McMillon goes through two cycles of chemotherapy; a 14-day cycle followed by a short break and then a five-day cycle. He has completed three full cycles so far with the first two occurring in the hospital and the third occurring in the hospital and at home.
Additionally, he has already had two bone marrow biopsies and four spinal taps since his diagnosis, which is going to be a normal routine for Sergeant McMillon until his cancer goes into remission.

In the meantime, Sergeant McMillon is surrounded by positive thinking, support and hope from his family, friends and co-workers. Sergeant McMillon's mother made the trip to New Mexico from Virginia where his parents and little sister live, to help support Sergeant McMillon and his 5-year-old son, Tyler, during this time. She also has made sure to update his squadron with status reports and visitation opportunities.

"Guys from work would bring me things to occupy my time like books and games," Sergeant McMillon said. "The people in my squadron were extremely supportive and really looked after me."

During times where visitation was not allowed because of his fragile immune system, phone calls, cards and letters flowed in to the hospital to show Sergeant McMillon that his Air Force family was behind him 100 percent and supporting him all the way.

"Initially, we were very worried and depressed about his illness," said Senior Master Sgt. David Dehon, 58th MXS first sergeant. "But, we quickly put aside those feelings; we pulled together and provided all of the necessary support for Sergeant McMillon and his family."

Meanwhile, the medical evaluation board had started the process of examining Sergeant McMillon's case, and by the time he was released from the hospital, the board determined his condition made him eligible for Permanent Disability Retirement.

"The Air Force is doing a great job of taking care of his needs and those of his son," Sergeant Dehon said. "The fact that he is being medically retired is a blessing to both of them. The disability rating he received takes care of his financial needs and both he and his son will continue to receive full medical benefits along with all other retirement benefits."

Along with his medical retirement, all of Sergeant McMillon's medical expenses were paid by the Air Force as part of his military benefits.

"People talk about the military benefits and everything like that," Sergeant McMillon said. "I am going through an experience where the benefits have really been highlighted. Two weeks ago, I got a statement of charges from Presbyterian for $200,000. Even while I was in the hospital, I knew I was racking up a huge bill and just knowing that Tricare and the Air Force were taking care of it was one less thing to worry about. I couldn't imagine what I would do if I didn't have that kind of insurance. It's just a peace of mind that came with knowing that."

Over the past few months, Sergeant McMillon has learned everything there is to know about his military benefits, particularly the ones that involve his health care. Today, he takes every chance he can get to let others know how important those benefits are and how well the Air Force has taken care of him through his ordeal.

"I was talking to some guys at work the other day; particularly talking to the young guys because some people have an attitude toward the military even after they first come in," Sergeant McMillon said. "I just said, 'You never really know.' I would never have imagined I would ever be going through this.

"I think it's important for Airmen to remember they made a voluntary decision to come into the Air Force," he continued. "It's important, while you're in, to take advantage of the many benefits offered to you and not take them for granted. I got a $200,000 bill and the amount due says zero. I want to take a picture of it because I've never seen anything like that!"

As for his plans for the future, Sergeant McMillon is moving to Virginia in the next few weeks to be closer to his family and finish up his chemotherapy, hoping to hit remission soon afterward.

"That's the plan right now, but sometimes it's tough because I'm kind of thinking, wow, I have to start all over," he continued. "I was doing relatively well in the military; I had won Specialist of the Year for the 58th Maintenance Group, was taking a break from school and from traveling and just enjoying my military career. It's not going through the chemotherapy that's the hard part, because I can deal with that. But, I have been associated with the Air Force so much at this point and now it's a little tough to see that end."

It's also tough for his fellow Airmen and supervisors to lose such a valuable service member who sets the bar for others to strive for.

"Sergeant McMillon is an outstanding Airman who exemplifies the meaning of our Core Values; Integrity, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do," Sergeant Dehon said. "When confronted with a life-threatening illness he has continued to display these values every day."

Although his Air Force career is coming to an end, there is a world of possibilities open to him as far as future careers. One possibility that's starting to sound appealing to him is a career in health care.

"It's funny because when I was in the hospital, I started getting more and more interested in health care," Sergeant McMillon said. "I noticed that just like there's more to the Air Force than pilots; there's more to health care than doctors and nurses. There are a ton of people in the Air Force who help make people fly and there are a ton of people in the hospital who help the people there get better."

In the meantime, Sergeant McMillon is focused on his treatment and winning the fight against cancer. Although doctors still are not able to give him an expected remission date, Sergeant McMillon remains hopeful about his condition.

"I try to keep a good attitude about everything," he said. "A great deal of beating this is having a lot of positive thinking, not just with me, but with everyone around me. A lot of positive thoughts and energy around me is really good; I definitely believe that."
And so do many of the people who surround Sergeant McMillon and have helped him through this ordeal.

"I think you are stone cold if you don't have an emotional reaction while listening to his ordeal and the positive feelings he has for his future and the Air Force," Sergeant Dehon said. "As a result of this ordeal, I know that Sergeant McMillon is stronger and he has brought us closer together as a squadron.

"Sergeant McMillon has stated to everyone that he is extremely lucky and thankful to be a member of the Air Force during this ordeal," he continued. "I believe Sergeant McMillon's positive attitude gives him the best chance to win his fight with this illness, and I wouldn't be surprised if he is able to return to active duty service following his treatment."

Until such time, Sergeant McMillon is determined to live life to the fullest and to stay positive about the choices he's made in life ... and the ones he didn't.