Against the odds: A cancer survivor’s journey back to the cockpit

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Sarah Johnson
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – “Why are you here?”

The question came from Col. Corwin Pauly, 60th Air Mobility Wing vice commander at Travis Air Force Base, California. It was June 2015, and he had just arrived at Travis as the incoming vice commander. One of the first Airmen he met was Maj. Matt Bartomeo, a C-5M Super Galaxy pilot with the 22nd Airlift Squadron who was working as an executive officer for the 60th AMW.

“The first day we met, I was standing in the doorway of my office and he was coming in through the double doors,” said Pauly. “I’m just meeting folks and shaking hands, and I try to get a little more than just the ‘Hi, how are you doing?’”

“(Pauly) asked me, ‘Hey, tell me your story,’” recalls Bartomeo. “I said, ‘Well, I used to fly C-5s.’ He asked, ‘Used to?’ I said I had a situation going on.”

Bartomeo told Pauly he was in the middle of cancer treatment and had just received chemotherapy the day before.

Not long before the two met, Bartomeo was like any other healthy 22nd AS pilot, flying regularly before he transitioned to the wing executive positon. When he began to develop symptoms of itching, night sweats and coughing, he didn’t think much of it.

Eventually, however, the cough worsened enough for him to make an appointment at David Grant USAF Medical Center at Travis.

On March 13, 2015, the three seemingly common symptoms turned into a diagnosis that would change the lives of Bartomeo and his family forever: cancer.

The pilot was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, a form of cancer that attacks the body’s immune system through white blood cells, according to the American Cancer Society. He immediately began a rigorous treatment plan at DGMC, which included several rounds of chemotherapy.

The diagnosis also meant Bartomeo was taken off flying status indefinitely.

Throughout the chemo, Bartomeo continued to work. The work was not only a welcomed distraction and sense of normalcy, but gave him a chance to spend time with friends, he said.

“I still get paid, and I still felt like I could work,” he said. “So I worked.”

“I remember seeing Matt walking around with a mask on because he couldn’t be exposed to stuff, and he comes to the office just to check in and say hi and ask if we need any help,” said Pauly, shaking his head.

Bartomeo’s work ethic as an officer influenced his attitude toward his cancer, said Pauly.

“Matt’s personality is, ‘If you’re paying me to do a job, I’m going to do the job as well as I can do it, and I’m going to do it better than everyone else,’” he said. “He is a competitive, driven guy. He attacked every one of those treatments the same way.”

In June 2015, Bartomeo was put in a brief remission, only to find two weeks later the cancer had returned and the chemo treatments had not been effective.

The second attempt at treating the cancer was completed during a clinical trial at Stanford Cancer Institute in Palo Alto, California. Bartomeo underwent various forms of immunotherapy, including an autologous bone marrow transplant.

He and Pauly remained close throughout the long process, even when Pauly was deployed during the clinical trial portion of treatment.

“I’m lucky because I got sick in the best job that you can get sick in in the Air Force,” said Bartomeo. “Colonel Pauly (always) told me, ‘We’ll get you back on flying status, and then we’ll go out and fly together.’”

Despite Bartomeo and Pauly’s optimism, the cancer’s toll on Bartomeo’s health, family, lifestyle and career was grueling and difficult. There were a few times his return to the Air Force seemed doubtful, said Pauly.

“I remember the day Matt came in and said, ‘They’ve found me unfit for duty and they’re going to medically retire me,’” said Pauly. “He told me, ‘I’m appealing it, and I’m fighting it, and I think I’m going to get through, but – just in case, would you be willing to do my retirement?’”

He paused, overcome with emotion.

 “That was – still is – an emotional day, because it’s the first time I saw him crack, just a little bit,” he said. “But it was only for that long. Literally, it was only for a two-minute conversation, and then he was back on and saying things like, ‘When I get healthy, I’m going to do this,’ and ‘I’m going to get back on flying status.’”

Despite the odds, Bartomeo was never medically retired. The clinical trial proved successful, and he was put in remission a second time. In August 2016, he returned to work full-time in the 60th Operations Support Squadron at Travis.

“Matt’s the kind of guy that leans forward, attacks the problems and then finds solutions,” said Pauly. “And when the Air Force overturned their decision (to medically retire him), I will forever say the Air Force got that one right.”

As soon as he returned, Bartomeo began working towards applying for a flight waiver with the Air Force so he could reach his ultimate goal: returning to the cockpit. After several months, the long-awaited decision arrived. Bartomeo was placed back on active duty status and granted the waiver. He had not been able to fly in 26 months.

One of his first reactions to the good news? “I texted Colonel Pauly and asked him when we were going flying,” said Bartomeo.

The two reached their shared goal in April, when they flew a local C-5 training mission together April 12.

“Matt has rolled with all of this stuff and always had a positive outlook that the outcome would be positive… that cancer was not going to get him,” said Pauly. “I was more than willing to do everything I could to get him back, fully qualified, in an airplane, before he moved.”

Though one of his biggest hurdles is complete, Bartomeo still lives with the proud but challenging title of being a cancer survivor – a title that, as any survivor knows, is much more complicated than it seems.

“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in life is not go through cancer treatment,” said Bartomeo. “The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in life, to include the Air Force, to include pilot training, is to live as a survivor. I don’t think we give cancer survivors enough credit for what they go through on a daily basis.”

Despite being in remission, survivors are always tuned in to the symptoms that led to the diagnosis in the first place, he said. In his case, it is the original three symptoms: itching, night sweats and coughing.

“This has been the hardest part of my symptoms,” he said. “Dealing with itching, night sweats and coughing, that’s daily life for many people. Now you have to go through and determine, what is the right amount?”

He and his wife constantly pay attention to his health.

“In February I got a cold, and I was coughing for around three weeks,” he said. “Every time I’d cough, my wife would look at me and say, ‘Uh… do we have a problem?’”

So far, Bartomeo has beaten the odds. He conducts rapid global mobility with his C-5, providing critical airlift to the places and people who need it most, and does it all after fighting cancer for 14 months.

“Honestly, I didn’t expect I’d ever get to fly again with Matt Bartomeo,” said Pauly. “I didn’t think the Air Force would let him into a cockpit again. The fact that he beat those odds in addition to beating cancer (and) to see him able to progress, both as a pilot and a future Air Force leader, is very, very rewarding.”