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NEWS | Dec. 14, 2011

Life After Death: 45 tumors didn't slow this Airman down

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

For Master Sgt. Scott Kapanke, 437th Maintenance Squadron flight chief at Joint Base Charleston, S.C., cancer wasn't a death sentence, no matter how unfavorable his odds were. To him, it was just another challenge to face.

In 1995, Kapanke was a 23-year-old, C-130 maintenance student at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., when doctors' detected he had testicular cancer and it had spread throughout his body.

The cancer had reached Kapanke's neck and although he didn't know it at the time, one of the tumors was pressing against his nerves. This caused chronic pain in his arm.

Kapanke first thought he was suffering from a bad reaction to a flu shot. He attempted using pain relievers to cope with the agony in his arm.
After enduring constant torture from the physical suffering on a daily basis, Kapanke finally agreed to see a doctor. After initial testing, the doctors diagnoses was much more severe than a bad reaction to a flu shot.

The testicular cancer had metastasized into 45 tumors between his waist and neck.

Doctors wanted to medevac Kapanke immediately to Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland AFB, Texas. However, Kapanke refused to be flown.

"I wasn't going to die overnight," said Kapanke. "So, there was no reason to fly when I could easily drive. I didn't want to leave my truck at my temporary duty assignment."

Against doctor's wishes, Kapanke drove himself to Wilford Hall where he remained for more than a year and underwent treatments to remove the tumors. The first treatments were multiple rounds of chemotherapy.

"Each session of chemo had little to no effect on the tumors," said Kapanke. "The fourth round of chemo was the most potent dose and it did very little to help."

Chemotherapy was no longer an option.

The once energetic and muscular Kapanke was reduced to a frail shell of his former self. He went from 206 lbs. to 130 in just a few weeks. After losing all of his hair, weight and confidence, Kapanke detached himself from the world and everyone he knew.

"I separated myself from everyone," said Kapanke. "My family would visit, but I didn't feel very social. After chemo failed, my only option was bone marrow transplants."

Kapanke had given up hope. He regularly witnessed death at Wilford Hall. He also noticed none of the other patients had cancer as severe as his. Kapanke reached a point where he accepted the likelihood he was going to die.

"After I accepted death," said Kapanke. "I was at peace. I had done more things and seen more places than any man could have dreamed of. The Air Force had given me the opportunity to travel the world."

But the bone marrow transplants were beginning to gradually work. They were very dangerous procedures and after the second transplant, Kapanke still had six tumors in his chest.

Doctors suggested surgically removing the remaining tumors. Kapanke was given a Computerized Axial Tomography Scan by the Wilford Hall medical team prior to his operation.

"The doctors analyzed my CT Scan results," said Kapanke. "They told me surgery would be a waste of time. I initially took the remark as my death sentence. However, surgery wasn't necessary anymore because all my tumors had vanished."

The news hit Kapanke like a ton of bricks.

Although the reason why the tumors vanished remain a mystery, his battle with cancer was over. More than a year of having his health on a downward spiral, losing his hair and anticipating his own death, Kapanke was able to breathe fresh air again and he walked out of Wilford Hall Medical Center with his life.

Kapanke moved to Colorado after his release from medical treatment but continued to travel to Wilford Hall for checkups.

Being an Airman was always Kapanke's passion, but everything he underwent had taken a toll on his body. In early 1996, he was forced into medical retirement from the U.S. Air Force. The retirement was due to the progression of the cancer and intensity of the treatment.

"After medically retiring," said Kapanke. "I had monthly check ups with doctors. My health seemed great. Eventually, the doctors started seeing me less often."

After a year and a half, Kapanke felt healthy enough to serve again, Kapanke fought his forced retirement up the chain of command to Sheila Widnall, former Secretary of the Air Force.

"I was skinny and bald," said Kapanke. "But, I could still turn a wrench, so I fought to get my job back."

The Wilford Hall medical team tested Kapanke's condition and determined he was fit for active duty. In May1997, Kapanke was reinstated into the Air Force.

"The transition back was flawless," said Kapanke. "I was doing what I loved again."

Kapanke challenged himself by taking a special-duty assignment at Nellis AFB, Nev., when he became a crew chief for the Air Force flight demonstration squadron, the Thunderbirds.

"Working with the Thunderbirds was great," said Kapanke. "It taught me attention to detail which helped a lot when I got to my next assignment with the 437th Maintenance Squadron here at Joint Base Charleston."

In August 2007, Kapanke deployed from JB Charleston for 365 days with the Coalition Air Force transition team to Southwest Asia to train the Iraqi air force to perform maintenance on C-130 aircraft.

The year-long deployment was Kapanke's first combat-zone assignment. However, it wasn't his first time he felt death lingering around every corner.

"During the deployment, I survived 57 rocket and 16 mortar attacks," said Kapanke. "Death could have come at any time and from any direction. I've faced it before, so I wasn't going to let fear stop me from doing my job."

"The Iraqis didn't fear anything," said Kapanke. "Rockets would explode all around us and they would casually enjoy a cup of hot tea. It was just the way of life to them."

The cancer earlier in his career was an internal battle. However, it left him stronger and like the Iraqi service members, he was able to fearlessly stand up and stare death in the eyes.

Kapanke beat cancer nearly 15 years ago and owes every step he succeeds to the previous ones he's taken.

"I look forward to having more challenges during my Air Force career," said Kapanke. "I'll be able to face them with confidence because of all the challenges I've had."