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Back in the sky: Air Force loadmaster overcomes cancer

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – “It turns out you have a form of lymphoma,” said a voice over the phone. “It’s Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and luckily it’s only stage 1. You will be receiving a call from an oncologist sometime today.”

This was the call Staff Sgt. Oliver Broadbent, a loadmaster from the 22nd Airlift Squadron, was expecting to receive since having a lump removed from his upper groin a week prior.

“I never thought I was going to die from anything,” said Broadbent. “I think I just prepared myself to hear that it was cancer. I think I even said, ‘OK cool, thank you and have a good day.’”

Within the hour, Broadbent was diagnosed with Stage 1 Follicular non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Lymphoma is the most common blood cancer and occurs when cells of the immune system called lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell, grow and multiply uncontrollably. Cancerous lymphocytes can travel to many parts of the body, including the lymph nodes, spleen, bone marrow, blood, or other organs, and form a tumor. Follicular lymphoma is the most common slow-growing form of NHL.

The diagnosis brought Broadbent’s world to a standstill. He was removed from flying status, his work life became a steady stream of doctor’s appointments and his career in the Air Force suddenly appeared uncertain.

“I remember the doctor telling me, ‘Don’t read about it, you’ll see a lot of people say it’s incurable,’” said Broadbent, reflecting back on his first appointment with the oncologist.

His doctors reassured him that because the cancer was caught so early, it could be treated with chemotherapy and radiation. They were confident they could cure him.

“At that point, I thought, it’s in their hands … I just have to be a good sport and deal with it, I have to be positive for my kids,” he said.

Broadbent did his best to explain his illness to his two young daughters.

“I just told them, ‘I get to spend more time with you guys and I’m not going to be working because I’m sick. I probably don’t look sick, but I am. Don’t worry about me, we get to be together more,’” he said.

In June 2015, Broadbent began his first round of chemotherapy.

He described his chemotherapy treatment as “just like going into work.” He’d arrive around 8 a.m. and sit there until 4 p.m., all while seven different medications were pumped into his body through a port placed in his chest.

“I just kind of sat there on the verge of sleeping all day,” he said. “I brought a book, never read it. I brought some music, never listened to it. I just sat there thinking, ‘When is this going to be over.’”

Three weeks after his initial chemotherapy treatment Broadbent awoke to the realization of his condition.

“I was lying in bed, scratching my head and looked down and there’s hair in my hand,” said Broadbent. “I could pick it up like I was picking up dust … a hand full of hair.”

It was his turning point. The moment he realized he was indeed a cancer patient.

“My daughter came home after I decided to shave it all off and she just broke down,” he said. “When people think of cancer patients, this is what they envision. Bald. No hair. This was the point for me where I was like, ‘Wow this is a big deal.’”

Bonded by cancer

Over the next several months, Broadbent endured three more rounds of chemotherapy before moving onto radiation therapy. The treatments ravaged his body.

But during this time, Broadbent formed a friendship – one he called his “most important relationship.”  

Sitting next to each other while receiving treatment was then Capt. Matthew Bartomeo, a C-5 pilot from the 22nd Airlift Squadron, a fellow aircrew member who had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

“We talked the whole time,” said Broadbent. “He said, ‘Don’t call me captain, I’m Matt and I’m here for you.’ One of the things he did was just text me. There was never any obligation to text back, he just would let me know he was there if I needed to talk.

“I think I realize more and more every day that was my most important relationship during chemo,” said Broadbent. “He was the only one who could relate to me. Matt was a flyer, he was Air Force, we had a similar cancer and the same doctor.”

Undergoing treatment was often an isolating experience, Broadbent said. But the bond formed between these two Airmen made an impact on his recovery.

“Looking back, if I didn’t have Matt I think I would have felt pretty lonely,” he said. “It was really good to have someone, a real person, who can relate to you on so much.”

Cancer free

After six months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Broadbent was pronounced cancer free by his doctors.

“It was a huge relief. I kind of expected it to be like a movie where the doctor is like, ‘Congratulations, you are cancer free’ but it wasn’t,” he said with a laugh. “It was more like, ‘Your scan was clear and we are going to have a follow up in six months.’”

While in remission, Broadbent had yet to experience his “hardest moment.”

“I’d say after everything was over was my hardest moment,” he said. “Coming back to normal life. I was trying to sort out my whole life because it just stopped. Everything that was a normal, daily thing had changed.”

The young loadmaster said he went from “zero to 100” to put back the pieces of the life he had once known.

“For the last six months all I had known was cancer,” he said. “Not the airplane, not EPRs, not this or that thing in the Air Force … just cancer. That was all I had talked about and known. I just felt like I was talking about cancer a lot and that was a hard thing not to do.”

Although cleared to return to duty, it took an additional nine months before Broadbent could return to flying status – a passage that provided him a fresh perspective on his career.

“Once I returned to flying, I was ready to go,” Broadbent said. “It put a new perspective on flying. I wanted any mission, it didn’t matter. I was just happy to be there, pushing pallets and flying.”

His journey would eventually culminate earlier this year. On April 12, Broadbent flew with now Maj. Bartomeo during his first flight back since his battle with cancer.

“It was like everything had come full circle,” he said. “We still stay in touch.”

Broadbent said to those enduring their fight with cancer, “Talk about it.”

“Whether it’s a counselor, a friend or family member, tell your story,” he said. “People want to hear. Everyone is different, but be open to people being there for you.”