Resilience: Battling Brain Cancer


Remaining Resilient through your Battles

By Hunter Barnhill, O2X Resilience Specialist (Former U.S. Air Force Pilot, brain cancer survivor)

Best Laid Plans

Like many people, I met 2020 with great anticipation and set my expectations high for the year. And like many others, I was faced with unexpected challenges and obstacles that I hadn’t seen coming. While most of the world shut down last March, my new year’s goals were interrupted last February, when I suffered a seizure during a CrossFit workout. 

Due to a brain cancer diagnosis in the Spring of 2007, this was not my first seizure; however, it was my first in more than two years. The seizure spooked me, and I was immediately concerned that my cancer had returned.

Also during this time, I was receiving medical care for an eye condition that, if untreated, could lead to blindness. Two years before, I was an Instructor Pilot in the US Air Force with perfect vision. Being an Air Force pilot was my childhood dream, and I cherished every day that I was able to put on that flight suit and fly. In just a span of two short years, my wings had been clipped, and now I was fighting to save my eyesight, but I held fast to my faith and carried on.

From Bad to Worse

In May of 2020, my family took a short vacation to an island in Lake Erie just off the coast of northern Ohio. The day we arrived, I suffered another seizure. Something was definitely up. I was now fully convinced that my cancer had returned. Flashbacks to my first seizure on Easter Sunday of 2017, which led to the initial discovery of a cancerous brain tumor came flooding into my mind. My recovery from the surgery was rough, and the thought of having to go through that again was daunting.

That surgery had left the right side of my body partially paralyzed, and I was unable to speak. It wouldn’t be until months of physical and speech therapy that these functions were restored. Needless to say, the weekend getaway wasn’t as relaxing as I was hoping. 

Hanging up my uniform

Later in the same month, I was notified that I would be medically retired from the Air Force. While receiving this news no doubt stung, it was inevitable, and I accepted it. I believe the two seizures were the Lord telling me that it was time to hang up the uniform for good. Did I like it? No, hell no. Serving my country was a childhood dream. It was already bad enough to lose my wings, but getting booted from the Air Force was just another blow. Still, I knew that there was nothing I could do, so I immediately began seeking other opportunities where I could use my skills and still serve. Thanks be to God, I found a defense contracting job, was hired, and began working before my official retirement date.

But 2020 had something else in store for me.

Fears Confirmed

In late June, after a routine MRI, I received news that my suspicions were indeed correct: the cancer was back, and, worse yet, the doctors were recommending another brain surgery. Even though I had an idea this would be the case, hearing those words felt like I had been hit by a train. I was down.

The surgery in 2017 left me unable to speak and partially paralyzed on the right side of my body, and the doctors told me to expect the same since the tumor was extremely close to an area of my brain known as the supplementary motor strip. 

Two weeks after getting this news, I officially retired from the Air Force. By this point, the US was locked down due to the pandemic. The news came two weeks before my official retirement, and I soon found myself scrambling to ensure healthcare coverage. 

As is common with most military transitions, the medical evaluation board failed to capture an accurate assessment of my condition, so I was forced to rebut and appeal many of their findings. At this point I felt as if I was plugging holes in a sinking ship, and just when I thought I had successfully plugged the leaking holes, another two or three appeared.

Keep Moving

Shortly after receiving news of my cancer’s return, my wife and I decided to sell our house. The market was lucrative, but the global pandemic made the process especially complex. We sold our house, put most of our belongings in storage, and moved back into the house I grew up in, from which I’m writing these very words.

 So here I am, a 33-year-old man with a wife and son living in my mother’s basement waiting for a new place to call home (which hopefully I’ve found by the time you’re reading this). I believe that’s strikes 3, 4, and 5. Honestly, I’ve lost count by now.

I am currently being screened for a clinical trial, which would entail taking a medication to stop the tumor’s growth, and thus make an additional surgery unnecessary. However, if the tumor continues to grow, I’ll need surgery, chemotherapy, and perhaps even radiation therapy.

Fighting our battles 

We’re all fighting our own battles. Some of us are deep in the thick of battle, while some of us are enjoying a short reprieve. However, those reprieves don’t last forever, and it’s only a matter of time until we find ourselves once again thrust into the ever-present trials and tribulations. 

I’ve found that one of the reasons it’s difficult to recover and get ourselves back on solid ground in the midst of these struggles is that we so easily forget of our past triumphs and victories. 

The act of reminding ourselves of situations we’ve overcome is a battle in itself, because if we don’t actively call to mind instances of overcoming difficulties of the past, it’s so easy to wallow, languish, and slip into despair. Then what comes next is usually the adoption of a fixed mindset, which is the antithesis of a healthy and productive mindset. 

I’ll admit that not a day goes by that I’m not reminded of my frail and vulnerable condition. Not since the day before Easter Sunday in 2017 have I been able to wake up and say, “I don’t have cancer, and there’s no reason to suspect that I do.”

Sometimes I wish I could go back to those days, but I have to actively remind myself that these difficulties, trials, and tribulations are making me stronger. I am in fact better not just in spite of my difficulties, but precisely because the bitter battles I have fought and won.

So the next time you find yourself in a precarious situation where everything seems to be falling apart, take up arms and fight to remind yourself of the reasons why you’re still here. Reminding yourself breeds hope, and hope leads to opportunities for positive action. 

Finally, I believe that we all felt the weight of 2020 in some unique way, and that we should all earmark the year. Remember 2020 so that you can reference back to it when you find yourself deep in a pit. Let 2020 serve as a reminder of how you/we endured, overcame, and ultimately conquered. That’s how you garner hope for the future despite any setback, and that’s how you can get the last laugh of 2020.