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Readiness Enabler for Operational Forces  •
Marine battles cancer with courage, faith

By Nathan L. Hanks Jr., Editor | | November 11, 2010

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Marines are warfighters and are commonly known for acts of courage on the battlefield.

For one Marine who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, his body has become his battlefield.

Gunnery Sgt. Jon Swan is fighting the toughest battle of his life ... cancer.

Swan, an amphibious assault vehicle repairman with Supply Management Center, Marine Corps Logistics Command, was promoted to gunnery sergeant during a ceremony held here at Building 3700, Nov. 1.

“Marines are fighters, that is what we do, we fight,” said Maj. Gen. James A. Kessler, commanding general, LOGCOM. “In this case the fight takes on a new dimension. Occasionally, we fight for our lives.”

Swan was diagnosed with cancer June 16, a day he’ll never forget.

He had been coughing up blood that day and had no plans of going to see the doctors at Naval Branch Health Clinic. However, Swan’s wife, Shelley, was adamant that he go.

“I’m just hard-headed and unless I’m literally dying, I won’t go there,” said Swan, a native of Richmond, Va.

Little did he know, he was dying. Shelley’s persistence paid off and ultimately saved his life, according to Swan who has served in the Marine Corps for 10 years.

At the clinic, Swan underwent X-rays and the doctors were concerned about what they saw. Swan was immediately sent for a computerized axial tomography or CAT scan. Later that evening, Swan was called back to the clinic where he received his diagnosis.

“The doctor said I had gallstones, a partially collapsed lung, pneumonia, fractured T-9 vertebrae, and two tumors,” said Swan who is 5-foot, 8-inches tall. “I said OK, what do we know about the tumors? The doctor said ... it’s cancer.”

“It didn’t really hit me right off the bat. You try and comprehend it ... How do you get sick at my age?” said Swan who at the time was a month shy of turning 32.

Swan was initially diagnosed with thymic cancer; however, after several tests, the doctors are unsure of the type of cancer he has.

“At this time, the doctors are not going to change the diagnosis,” he said. “They really don’t know what kind of cancer it is and are unsure how to treat it. Their main goal now is to get me healthy and worry about categorizing the cancer later.”

Surgery was scheduled but tests revealed more cancer cells. The doctors decided Swan needed to undergo aggressive chemotherapy treatments to shrink the cancer before he could have surgery. He was referred to the hospital at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in Birmingham, Ala.

Typically, his treatment starts on a Wednesday and lasts for five days. He said he is given three types of chemotherapy treatments, which take about six hours a day. So far, Swan has been to UAB 15 times and has had 45 treatments.

Swan said his wife, who takes him to every appointment, is his strongest supporter.

“Shelley has been there for me from the beginning and she’s been great,” he said.

“At first, we did not want to accept it was cancer,” Swan said. “It’s not that we did not agree with what was being said but you just don’t want to say the last thing about your life is that you had a battle with cancer and you lost. It’s just not what you want to say.”

It wasn’t until Shelley’s family visited and they saw the worried look on their faces that they knew they had to discuss it.

“We had a day where we sat down and talked about everything from the diagnosis to the possibility of dying,” Swan said.

After that conversation, he said he knew everything would be alright.

“We are both Christians and I have a ton of faith,” Swan said. “Once I accepted that I was not in control of the situation, it made it a lot easier to deal with.”

He said he realizes he cannot control the outcome.

“I know it could go either way ... I could die or I could be healed, but at this point all I can do is hang in there and fight, fight for my wife, Shelley,” Swan said. “Now it’s just living with cancer. I just go through the treatments and keep my head high and never quit.”

The gunny said battling cancer has been a struggle and the chemotherapy treatments have been rough on his body.

The battle is different than the one he fought in Iraq, he said.

“In Iraq, we (the Marines) fought as a team, but my battle with cancer is more of a one-on-one fight,” he said.

However, there is one similarity between the battles in Iraq and cancer said Swan ... faith.

“I felt at ease during the war and I feel at ease dealing with cancer,” he said. “I feel at ease with what is going on.”

<>Shelley said she knows it is a possibility her husband could die, but believes he will beat the cancer. For him to do that, she has to remain strong and positive, she said.

“I play off his emotions and watch how the treatments are affecting him,” Shelley said. “So much of it is a mental battle. I believe if you can win mentally your body will respond. Cancer is not a death sentence.”

“Thankfully the community has been amazingly supportive,” she said. “He has to see that I am the rock, I can’t be the emotional wife around him, he has to know that I am strong. If he doesn’t know that I am strong then I could be more of a burden to him.”

Cancer will forever change their lives Shelley said.

“You appreciate life a whole lot more,” she said. “We are so blessed that we are in the Marine Corps and the Marine Corps supports us.”

Shelley said she had not heard of Albany, Ga., prior to receiving orders.

“God puts you in places for a reason and He put us here for this reason,” she said. “The doctors said he has had this cancer for two years. If we had not come to Albany we could have been too late, but at this point there is still hope. We have a wonderful support system and community.”

Swan agreed saying,” People we don’t even know are contacting us. The support has been overwhelming, it’s unbelievable.”

“I’ve never asked God why or been bitter about it,” he said. “I may not know how it will work out, but I need to use it to show people that if you have faith in the right things it will carry you through.”

Since being diagnosed, Swan said he sees everything differently.

“I really do appreciate that I have had such a full life already. I hope the ride is not over, but if it is I’m ok with that. The Lord will take me when He is ready.”

Swan said he used to be very intense but has calmed down since his diagnosis.

“Sometimes you get caught up in moving forward, getting promoted and all these things,” he said. “You get caught up in the daily grind and forget to appreciate what you have and how fortunate you are.”

The Swan family recently received good news that the chemomotherapy has done its job.

Surgery has been scheduled to remove the tumors, he said.

“Maybe we can move forward and put this whole thing behind us and I can get back to work and quit neglecting my duties,” Swan said as he laughed.

The Swan family extended a heartfelt thanks to the Marines and civilian-Marines of LOGCOM and the staff at Heritage Bank of the South for all their support during this challenging time.


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