EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska — “Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back.” — Maximus
This quote from the movie “Gladiator” rings powerful and true to Tech. Sgt. LaPaul Williams, who said, “I don’t believe death is to be feared.”
Williams, a 5th Air Support Operations Squadron fighter duty technician stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer. Dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans affects the lower back and is typically seen in people under the age of 18 and over the age of 45. Williams was 29.
Dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans looks like a bump on the back, then it grows and starts to get taller and pink at the top, Williams explained.
“I thought it was nothing,” he said. “I thought it was just a bump.”
Williams returned from a TDY to Hawaii and went to the doctor to check on the growing bump. The doctor informed him there was nothing he could do and sent him to a dermatologist. The dermatologist decided that surgery to remove the bump would be best.
On Oct. 17, 2014, Williams headed in for surgery. His wife, Chineka, was with him the entire time. Everything was going as planned. He was making light of the situation, joking with the intern who was learning how to cut a person’s back open, commenting on the giant needle they used to numb his back.
Once they cut most of it out, Williams said, the doctor stopped and made a statement that there was something wrong.
“It’s tumors,” the doctor said. “I don’t know what kind, but there are tumors deeper in your back.”
They had to have the tumors X-rayed and looked at, so they sewed Williams up and went from there.
Once they confirmed the dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans, Williams told his family.
“The afternoon I told my parents, as most mothers would be, she was freaked out,” Williams said. “We’re a very close-knit Christian family. They asked if I was all right, if I needed them here.”
Williams’ wife was there supporting him every step of the way.
“I don’t sit down,” Williams said. “She would tell me to rest, but I was a pain in the butt.”
Williams said he wasn’t scared about his diagnosis. He was a little shocked, but he wanted to know what he did to cause it and how he could fix it. The doctor told Williams there was nothing he could have done to prevent it. Williams was extremely hopeful during the entire ordeal.
In November, Williams said, they removed more of the tumors. They cut a diamond shape out of his back to remove them.
For six weeks, he had a tube from his back to his chest, as his back was healing. He healed quicker than normal.
Because of the nature of William’s job, he was immediately moved off duty and sent to see if he was allowed to stay in the Air Force. But, Williams said he had an extremely supportive Air Force family.
His supervisor, peers and commander were all hopeful for him, offering their support through it all. They let him know if there was anything he needed, he just had to ask.
“They didn’t bother me or limit me,” Williams said of his chain of command. “They watched my back and let me take care of myself.”
During his diagnosis, Williams said his family helped him most. They never looked at Williams with sad eyes, or blamed anything or anyone for what happened. They told him they would help him get through it, if he needed anything to call and they would stop and make time for him.
“There are a lot of things you can buy and replace,” Williams said. “But time spent with a person is something you can’t. When people decide to use some of their time for you, it’s humbling.”
Williams also said a positive attitude was key to facing this type of diagnosis.
“Positive thoughts have absolute results when it comes to healing,” Williams said. “Those who are hopeful and have positive thoughts regardless of the situation, they turn out the best.”
In December, Williams was in remission.
He said there is always a chance the cancer can come back, and if it does, it will be worse and more aggressive. He still goes to the doctor every six months to make sure it hasn’t returned, and that will continue for the rest of his life.
“I understand I am playing on borrowed time,” Williams said. “I’m still able to serve, and I’m thankful for that. I’m still ranking up and making friends. Anything that’s worth it is worth the effort.”
Williams’ advice to those who are still battling is to do whatever it takes to get positive, because it can change your reality.
“I have your back,” he said. “If you need to call me, call me. We’ll talk about life. Even if that means talking at 1, 2 or 3 in the morning, I’ll be up. I’ll make some tea and we’ll sit down and talk about it.”
To those who are supporting someone fighting this battle, Williams said: Encourage them. Encouragement will make the difference.
“The most important thing is it’s not about the condition, it’s about the people around you,” he said.
This feature is part of the “Through Airmen’s Eyes” series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.