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Cancer at 22

by Lt. Mike Koprowski, USAF

Inspiration image

Though not able to fly, Mike Koprowski still serves in the U.S. Air Force.

Twenty-two years old. I could run a 5K in 21 minutes, sometimes without breaking a sweat. My bench press approached 300 pounds, as the ladies loved the broad chest and thick shoulders. I graduated magna cum laude from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in Political Science and History. I was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, on my way to flying on the E-3 Sentry. It all came so easily. Nothing could stop me.

However, on July 18, 2006, exactly two months after college graduation and one month after I entered the Air Force, something did stop me, fast and without warning. On that day, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer – a pure embryonal carcinoma in my right testicle. I knew right then my life would never be the same. A hotshot 22-year-old, no longer.

Within three weeks, my right testicle was surgically removed and an aggressive chemotherapy regimen found its way into my once healthy body. The stigma of being “half a man” and the side effects of chemotherapy seemed insurmountable. As if this wasn’t enough, four days after the surgery, I was medically disqualified from my job in the Air Force and my childhood dreams of flying for my nation were shattered. It all seemed so bleak. Yet, as I soon learned, pain fades with time. And despite all the nightmares, through my cancer experience, I have found a higher purpose and meaning in life. I realized my true potential as a human being – my potential to help and serve others and to make this world a better place. There’s a new desire, deep down in my soul, to get out there and help people and to serve those who haven’t been as lucky.

Crisis doesn’t make the man, but rather reveals
the true character within.

I now know what it’s like to be down on your luck and to have your life torn apart. Because of this, I walk away from cancer a more compassionate and concerned person, more conscious and attentive to the pain and suffering of others. It takes significant events to help us change our ways, to throw out the preconceived notions that we always held so dear and to look at the world in a more compassionate and just way. Cancer forced me to find compassion, to reprioritize my life, to set out on a life of service for the right reasons, to seek justice at every turn and to work tirelessly for a better world.

I grew up fast in a short time, thanks to cancer. With this new perspective, I ask myself, “Will I help others to walk tall in the face of adversity, to stand up for justice, even if they stand alone? To fight the enemies of fear and hate? To treat people with endless compassion and love, to not hold prejudice against those considered ‘less fortunate?’ Will I help them look past materialism, selfishness and self-centeredness and to value faith and family above all else? Will I be able to teach them how to avoid the many mistakes that I made prior to cancer?” I sure hope so.

Crisis doesn’t make the man, but rather reveals the true character within. Cancer acted as the catalyst for my personal transformation, shaping my worldview in a way I could have never imagined. Cancer taught me more in five seconds than I learned in four years at Notre Dame or in six weeks of military boot camp, more in five seconds than in 22 years of “normal” life as a “normal” kid. The experience helped me to understand the fragility of this life that I always took for granted. It gave me a newfound appreciation for the sacredness of being alive, to breathe, to look your family in the eyes and to embrace those you love. Life itself became the highest good, my greatest gift.

To learn this lesson so early in life, although shocking, was truly a blessing in disguise. It allows me the opportunity to live a long life with a blessed perspective that most people don’t get until they are much older. In this sense, I am lucky to have had cancer. It drives me, knowing that I haven’t seen my best self yet. Thanks to cancer, my best self is yet to come. And I think you will find, once all the pain passes, that you too will feel just as blessed.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Lt. Koprowski currently serves as a Military Intelligence Officer at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas. Click here for more of Mike’s story.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2007.