An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

NEWS | Feb. 15, 2012

War from within: Master Sgt. Kapanke's resilient internal battle

By Airman 1st Class Tom Brading Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

(This feature is the follow up to "Life after Death: 45 tumors didn't slow this Airman down", which is featured as part of "Through the Airman's Eyes" series on The story digs deeper into the emotional war Master Sgt. Scott Kapanke fought within himself and how he found the resiliency to fight back when the odds of survival were against him.)

Sometimes, life is best described as a simple fishing trip.

At first, things weren't so simple for Master Sgt. Scott Kapanke, 437th Maintenance Squadron, 437th Airlift Wing flight chief at Joint Base Charleston - Air Base. Against all odds, Kapanke successfully battled testicular cancer which had manifested itself in the form of 45 tumors spread throughout his body, fought a forced military retirement, went on to lace his boots back up and continues to have an extraordinary Air Force career.

Kapanke's astonishing fight against cancer was only half the battle. The bigger war was finding the resiliency from within to overcome the odds with his mortality reduced to a coin toss.

"I'm ready to share the most personal part of my Air Force story," said Kapanke. "For years I've been embarrassed about my own selfishness. I was in such a dire situation, the only hope I had was finding contentment before I died. After my third round of chemotherapy failed, I started thinking about how easier and painless it would be if life was over."

Kapanke hopes that by admitting this, he'll be able to inspire anyone fighting their own demons to not give up.

"I had nobody to relate to," said Kapanke. "It wasn't like I had legal issues. There wasn't a judge that could give me custody of my life back. I lost my job, confidence, career and health. I couldn't even get into bars because the bandana covering my bald head was called 'gang related."

The cancer that had caused a dark reality to loom over Kapanke's shoulder reminded him it was no longer 'if' but 'when' he was going to die.

"The truth was," said Kapanke. "I was content with dying. However, having no control over my life was the hardest part."

Kapanke desperately wanted control. By not reaching out to the support and care programs available, he suffered in silence and started feeling the only aspect of his life he had any control over was dying on his own terms.

Although he needed professional support, he refused to look or ask for it. The doctors, therapists, behavioral health counselors and clergy were willing to help Kapanke with his depression but couldn't because his pride left had him feeling embarrassed and ashamed.

Finally, after months of personal torture, hanging on by only a thread, he could feel himself letting go.

"I never gave up on anything in my life until that day," said Kapanke. "Even when I found out I had more than 40 tumors, I wanted to finish my technical school. However, after chemo failed over and over, I started thinking, why bother?"

Isolated in darkness and numb to the world around him, Kapanke left the hospital and considered one last act of hopeless desperation. He had hit an emotional rock bottom.

"That was my eye opener," said Kapanke. "Amidst the darkness, I could feel a spiritual presence. For the first time in months, I didn't feel alone."

With death lingering like a dark shadow in a cold room, Kapanke remembered that he was a warrior and knew his battle wasn't over. He realized he shouldn't have tried fighting the battle alone as long as he did.

"No matter how hopeless I felt, somewhere out there someone had it worse," said Kapanke. "Everything was overwhelming because I tried carrying it all alone. There is nothing to glorify over that type of pain. I just hope sharing this reminds anyone feeling alone that they're not. There is no temporary problem in life that requires such a permanent solution. I hope my honesty can inspire others to have their eye opener before it's too late."

Although he was still in pain and in a daily fight for his life, not knowing if he'd survive or not, he was driven and knew he would not give up. It was the little things in life that gave him the inner strength to continue fighting.

He told himself, "One day I'll be able to go fishing again."

Kapanke used fishing to help him not give up and as treatments continued, his body didn't give up either. Fishing was more than a relic of his life before cancer, it was also a testament to the life he dreamed to have again.

"When I'm fishing on the river," said Kapanke. "I feel free from all of life's worries, if only momentarily. It's the little things in life that gave me the strength to keep fighting."

Eventually, he defeated the cancer that was crippling his body and he went on to see the entire world while having a successful Air Force career. Everywhere he went, he brought his fishing pole with him.

"For now, when it comes to death," said Kapanke. "I'm the one that got away."