Lance Armstrong & Bryan Patchen
April 6th, 2011 - RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany
By 2d Lt. Christopher Diaz, 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Bryan Patchen - At the beginning of his recovery from cancer, he could barely walk up a flight of stairs. Two weeks ago, he ran to work – a good 20km away.
Diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2008, Lt. Col. Bryan Patchen, 603rd Air and Space Operations Center director of operations, is currently training for his fourth full marathon since beating a disease that took nearly 1,700 lives in the past year alone.
After applying for a coveted slot in the upcoming London marathon, he was awarded one by Team Livestrong under the one condition that comes with it – raise $2,500 for the fight against cancer.
“They (Livestrong) inspired me to recover,” the Southberry, Conn., native explained. “I feel like I’m almost required to carry that on…that I should do something to help out.”
Though this isn’t the first time he’s raised money for the cause, Colonel Patchen says his initial interest in marathons was “something to prove to cancer.” He describes his mentality as “I’m recovered and you didn’t take me.” And while his sights are set on the future opportunities to give back, he still remembers the day he was diagnosed and how he never saw it coming. “It was a shock,” he said. “I felt fine.”
Shock of the ‘cancer’ word blocks out everything
A little more than three years ago, he was told by doctors that his swollen lymph node “looked like nothing.” As a precautionary measure, he was advised to get his thyroid checked. There, he was informed his condition was far more serious than a sore throat.
“We expected nothing…the shock of the ‘cancer’ word kind of blocks out everything else,” he said. “You think, ‘I have cancer, I’m going to die and that’s the end of it… I’m not going to see my kids grow up.’”
Though it was caught fairly early, the road to recovery called for immediate surgery to remove his thyroid. What he describes as “one of the final stages of treatment” sounds like something straight out of a science fiction novel.
“This guy walks in with a steel bucket, big gloves and protective gear – uses tongs to pull these pills out and says, ‘here, eat this,’” Colonel Patchen said. “I had to ingest radioactive iodine. That’s the treatment for TC because it kills off all the remaining thyroid tissue.”
For six days, he was in isolation and couldn’t have any visitors. Every inch of his hospital room was covered in plastic to keep from contaminating equipment.
“They would come in the door every day with a Geiger counter,” he said. “They couldn’t discharge me until my radioactive levels were low enough.”
Upon being discharged from the hospital, he returned home but still had to remain in isolation from his family for a week and a half.
“I took over the bedroom upstairs… no one could come in,” he said. “My big concern was how the radiation was going to affect my family and the people around me.”
Not being able to see his family added to the hardship, and Colonel Patchen recounts how he wasn’t himself during his period of isolation. At the time, the treatment called for tapering his body off of a medication that helped compensate for the loss of his thyroid. This experience, he says, was far worse than the surgery.
“I couldn’t think straight and wasn’t able to concentrate,” he said. “I gained a little bit of weight, my vision started going, I was really weak and couldn’t sleep well. Some days I didn’t even want to get out of bed. I was just miserable.”
Doug Ulman & Bryan Patchen
Lance Armstrong’s book
It was during this period of treatment where his view on life began expanding beyond the main concern of beating cancer. “It kind of reset the baseline for me… I thought, I feel horrible right now, but it put a lot of other things in life in perspective,” he said. “A friend of mine gave me Lance Armstrong’s book… I thought — if he can do that and his chance of survival was not very high, who am I to sit around?”
Over the next year, Colonel Patchen would keep that inspiration in the back of his mind while going through medicine adjustments and treatment. That spring, he decided to take action.
“I showed up in cotton shorts with a hundred-dollar bike to my first sprint triathlon,” he said. “It kicked my butt, but I thought, ‘wow, this is pretty cool.’ Almost a year after I was checked into the hospital I did the triathlon — mentally, it was a milestone.”
It made us grow stronger
A year after that, Colonel Patchen was finally declared “cancer-free.” He participated in nine marathon and triathlon events as part of his “Remission Euro tour 2010,” raising more than $1,600. While he continues to raise money today, his goal has remained focused on encouraging others with cancer to stay positive.
“It makes it easier to know someone else is out there,” he said. “I’ve had interaction with others who have had thyroid cancer and I can tell them, ‘I was in your shoes a year ago and I just ran a marathon.’”
Though his major focus is on supporting others with cancer, his drive and motivation have poured into his career as well.
“His work ethic is definitely one to be emulated,” said Senior Master Sgt. Timmie Gills, 603rd AOC intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance division superintendent. “When referencing his bout with cancer, he has never used it as an excuse. His sphere of influence to affect Airmen is incredible.”
Though his attitude is certainly admired among his coworkers, one individual in his personal life is proud, but not surprised about his dedication.
“He has always been a strong, persistent man,” said Brandi Patchen, the colonel’s wife, “it’s one of the reasons I love him.”
In April 17th, 2011, Mrs. Patchen and their three children were in London, cheering on Colonel Patchen as he ran for Team Livestrong and the fight against cancer. Mrs. Patchen is always aware of the struggles they’ve gone through, but like her husband, looks to a brighter future in helping others.
“It was a difficult time for our family, but it really made us grow stronger,” she said. “Now that he has survived and moved on, we work together as a family to live healthy, active lives, and to raise money and awareness about cancer and cancer treatments through Livestrong.”