Mind over cancer
By Master Sgt. Bret Toliver, 21st Dental Squadron
/ Published July 24, 2018
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Almost four years ago I received some troubling news. After discovering a small lump in my neck, I was diagnosed with stage 4 medullary thyroid cancer and informed that the five to 10-year survival rate for my condition was about 50 percent.
This was indeed quite shocking news and there was a lot to be angry and upset about. I had actually discovered the small lump in my neck on the very day I PCS’d away from my hometown in Arizona. I left my family behind to battle this life-threatening condition in an unfamiliar city.
At 33 years old, I was staring down a disease where chemotherapy and radiation were not really options. A lengthy surgery was my only recourse. How was it fair that my wife and three children were going to have to go through this?
Those were all things I could have focused on … but I didn’t. My first reaction was empathy for my doctor. What a terrible feeling it must be to give someone news like that. Immediately after, my thoughts moved to my family. How was I going to tell them? I knew in my heart that I was going to beat the odds and as a “glass half full” kind of guy, feeling sorry for myself or becoming upset at the situation were nonissues.
All I knew was that I needed to tell them about the obstacle in our path. I used my drive home to examine the situation. There was nothing I could change about the circumstances and therefore no need to stress about them. The most important thing was taking care of my family and making sure they were in a good place to get through this with me.
My values of family and positivity were what I was going to need to rely on, and I needed them on the same page. When I got home, I shared the news in a manner that let them know I was going to fight, I was going to win, and I needed their positive thoughts and feelings to help me achieve my objective.
In the days leading up to my surgery, my eyes were opened to something. Family, friends, and co-workers were puzzled by the way I carried myself. I was told on numerous occasions that they weren’t sure how I was handling it all so well. I was happy, positive, and there for anyone who needed to talk. I knew I was resilient, but the reactions from those closest to me led me to realize that the resilience skills I inherently possessed, were not necessarily natural for everyone.
After a 15-hour surgery that involved a radical neck dissection, thyroidectomy, the removal of over 200 lymph nodes from my neck, and five days in the ICU, I was on my way to recovery. It was not easy, but I leaned on friends and family for support and was eventually declared cancer free.
During my recovery, I learned of the Wing’s resilience program. I sought the guidance of a Master Resilience Trainer and started my journey to become a Resilience Training Assistant and eventually a MRT myself. I’ve since learned that the skill I used during my drive home after the discovery of my cancer diagnosis is known as mindfulness.
Mindfulness can be used to strengthen awareness and openness, allowing you to refocus on aspects where you have control and can take purposeful action. It is good to practice this on a regular basis, when you feel stress or need to counter negative thoughts, or when you feel overwhelmed. It can also be used during stressful times to examine what you can change, what is most important now, what values can motivate purposeful action, and what action you can take. Being able to put words to these skills has enabled me to connect with many people and teach, or at least reinforce for them, how to help themselves and others during times when resilience is necessary.
If you are interested in learning more about resilience skills please reach out to the RTA in your unit, an MRT, or even the installation resilience operations director, Beverly Barnish. You can also contact your helping agencies at 719-552-HELP and civilian Airmen can contact the 24/7 Employee Assistance Program by calling 1-800-222-0364 or at www.FOH4You.com. Additionally, there are weekly Mindful Resilience sessions where breathing techniques as well as mindfulness are practiced. The class is held every Wednesday, 3-4 p.m. in building 350, room 2027. Interested parties must sign-up by contacting Barnish at 719-556-6768, as space is limited to 10 people.