Overcoming adversity: One Airman's fight to beat cancer and serve

JBSA-Lackland -- All Airmen will face some form of adversity in the pursuit of their military service. For Senior Airman Cameron Sowle, it was cancer.

Sowle, a cyber operator for the 221st Combat Communications Squadron, Dallas, Texas, fought over and over for the right to serve his country; persevering through three separate medical disqualifications, as well as Stage 3 lymphoma, to serve with the Texas Air National Guard. In the process, he demonstrated a resiliency of mind, body, and spirit that many aspire to and few obtain. 

The son of a minister, Sowle grew up listening to the stories of his Marine grandparents and dreamed of beginning his own military career. He enrolled in the Reserve Officer Training Corps at Auburn University in Alabama with the intention to commission, but one semester in to the program was disqualified due to a minor medical condition. Soon after, Sowle married, received a bachelor’s degree, and continued on to a successful career in the civilian sector as a business systems analyst. However, the military continued to haunt him.

“Almost 15 years later I was talking to a friend about how I wanted to be in the military,” Sowle explained. “It devastated me (when I was disqualified) – that had been my plan.” His friend recommended he try for the National Guard or Reserves, which Sowle had not previously considered. So he talked to a recruiter.

Sowle discovered that due to changes in accessioning policy his initial disqualification no longer applied. But obstacles continued to stand in his way, including yet another medical disqualification for hearing loss that, after seeking a second opinion, he narrowly overturned.  His persistence paid off and in May 2013 Sowle finally attended Basic Military Training at the age of 37. 

However, life was not done throwing unexpected obstacles in his path. In October 2015, only a few months into his first deployment to the Middle East, Sowle received the news that irreversibly altered his life.

“I was in the best shape of my life,” said Sowle. “I had just done a half-marathon and weightlifting competition in early October. Then sitting in my tent one day, I felt a big lump on my neck, and thought what the heck is this?”

His lack of other symptoms worried doctors, so they ordered tests. Local ultrasounds and CT scans came back inconclusive. Further tests were required, and Sowle traveled to Landstuhl, Germany for a biopsy. “I had to wait a week for results, and in the meantime I was thinking whatever it is, I hope they can fix it and send me back, because I want to finish my first deployment,” Sowle said.

Then the results came back: while the biopsied mass was too small to know for certain, it appeared to be cancer. 

Sowle immediately returned to the states for more thorough testing at San Antonio Medical Center (SAMC) in Texas, which verified the diagnosis as Stage 3 non-Hodgkin lymphoma, an aggressive type of cancer that begins in immune-system white blood cells and their production sites. He would need to undergo chemotherapy.

“This is when I started freaking out,” Sowle explained. “I was thinking, I’m in excellent shape, what caused this? But of course, the cause of most cancers is unknown.”

During his first treatment at SAMC on Nov. 12, 2015, Sowle explained that was his lowest point, especially the night before treatment. “I was scared,” he said. “I had talked to a few guys who went through treatment and it hadn’t gone well.” 

Sowle returned to his hometown of Dallas for the remaining treatments. The regimen involved six doses of four different medicines, which were administered every three weeks for a total of 18 weeks. 

Fortunately Sowle’s cancer responded well to treatment. Adding to his luck, the laundry list of potential side effects to the drugs barely made an appearance. “That’s the weird thing, I felt great,” he said. “After my first treatment at SAMC, the next day I was cleared to return to Dallas for further treatment. With my wife in the car I asked, can I drive?”

He continued to work out five days a week throughout the treatment, including running a 5k marathon the day after receiving his third dose. Shortly after this third treatment, a PET scan (positron emission tomography) revealed his cancer was completely gone.

Sowle completed the final three treatments to ensure complete eradication of the tumors, his last one in March 2016; but the fight was not over. Now he had to undergo a medical review board to determine if he could return to duty status.

“I really wanted to stay in. This is what I wanted to do. I’d love to do 20 years if I can,” said Sowle. “I actually begged my physical training leader to let me take a PT test. I knew I needed all the evidence I could get to prove I was healthy. She told me I had a year before I would be required take it, so we fought a bit. I took the test and scored a 98.3.”

In the meantime Sowle went on to Airman Leadership School (ALS) in San Antonio, Texas, still not knowing if he would be able to continue to serve in the Guard. Then on Feb. 14, his last training day in ALS, and only two weeks after Sowle submitted his package to the review board, he received a phone call. He had been cleared for return to duty with no restrictions.

“I was jumping up and down,” Sowle said. “I told all my classmates, and when I got back to my room after class I broke down. Everyone has different things they want out of life, and out of the Air Force. Some guys I talk to say they’re ready to get out as soon as they can. It’s just hard for me to understand.” 

Sowle attributes his remarkable recovery to his faith, the support of those around him, and his mental attitude. The churches he and his wife belonged to were praying for them, he explained, and his wife’s insistence they would get through it helped anchor him. It was a combination of all his resiliency techniques that enabled him to endure and thrive.

“The four pillars of strength (physical, social, mental, and spiritual) are like table legs,” Sowle said. “If any one of them is lacking the table falls down.” 

The very next day, Sowle graduated ALS. Sowle is ready to return to his unit and in June promote to staff sergeant. He is also ready for another deployment, and still hopes to complete a full 20 years with the Air National Guard.

“Don’t let anyone or anything take away your dreams,” said Sowle.