GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas-- --
This year's Relay for Life event will mark a meaningful moment for many of us here. The event will bring cancer awareness to the forefront and spotlight many of those who have fought cancer and those who are still fighting. The keynote speaker this year is Lt. Col. Andrew "Dixie" Cupp,17th Training Group Deputy Group Commander, a warrior fighting for his life against cancer.
Cupp was diagnosed with melanoma (skin cancer) in December 2008. It started with a small mark on his elbow, resembling a scrape, not your typical skin mole, but it never seemed to go away. After about six months, the scrape started to bleed. He went to a doctor at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. for a routine check-up. The nurse practitioner was suspicious of the mark and sent him downtown to a dermatologist. A biopsy was taken, and within two days he received a call that changed his life.
The doctor told him it was melanoma, and it was very serious. Within a week he had the skin lesion removed, but it had grown deeper than first suspected. He went back and had more tissue on his elbow removed. They believed the cancer was gone. "You're good," they told him.
Cupp was directed to come back for skin checks every few months, and he did. They believed he was free and clear of cancer.
Fast forward to February 2011, Cupp had a bout with bronchitis, like several of his coworkers. He went to Ross Clinic here for an appointment. They gave him a chest X-ray where the doctors discovered three lesions on his lungs. The seemingly harmless scrape on his elbow, which turned out to be a deadly cancer had reached his blood stream and was now in his lungs.
It was now considered to be stage 4 Metastatic melanoma and his chances of survival were not encouraging.
He immediately began aggressive treatments at Brooks Army Medical, San Antonio, Texas. When he could, Cupp was at work, committed to his job and the Air Force. From the outside, he never let his diagnosis or prognosis affect his job. His coworkers rallied around him and formed Team Cupp for the Relay for Life event in May of 2011.
"Walking the survivors lap last year was interesting, maybe premature on that one," he said with a smile and laugh. "No, really, walking the survivor lap was a big deal. I got to walk with good friends like Holly Hoffman. She has been a close supporter and care provider to me, a great friend. I was able to walk with Col. JD Willis, 17th Training Group Commander, Mark Webster and several others from the 17th TRG and talk to them about what it meant to wear the purple survivor shirt. It's so much more real when you are one of those wearing the purple shirt."
In November 2011, Cupp had a thoracotomy, a surgery to remove the lower lobe of his right lung and with it, the cancer that had invaded his body. It's was a brutal surgery and recovery process. However, he managed to make it through the pain, collapsed lung and long recovery. His friends and family were all amazed by his stamina and inner strength. He still went to work when he could, never complaining or drawing attention to himself.
In January of this year, he was given a PET scan and found that the cancer had spread to the bone in his shoulder and into his liver. Metastatic melanoma that has spread to two organs results in a life expectancy of four months. When it has spread to three or more organs, life expectancy is two months.
He hasn't given up. Still fighting, hoping to keep the cancer at bay for as long as possible. When asked how he is handling his prognosis, he says with a gentle calmness, "I'm at peace with it. Always have been."
It's hard to put yourself in his shoes without a sense of panic, but he says that it is his faith in God that has given him peace.
"I'm not worried," he said. "I'm okay with it."
He says it with such a confidence and composure that you really believe him, and it immediately puts anyone at ease. He says that his support system of friends, both military and church community, has made a difference. His family is taking it harder, understandably. Cupp has three grown children - two sons and daughter, a grandchild and one on the way this May. His father and sisters live in Chattanooga, Tenn. where he hopes to return this summer.
Skin cancer, especially melanoma, is extremely aggressive. Excessive sun exposure now can affect you 30 years from today, no matter what your complexion. People with fair skin are extremely susceptible, especially if you have skin cancer in the family. Cupp is fair skinned with light green eyes and said that when he was in his youth and young in the Air Force, sun screen was never considered important.
Cupp says he loves it when he sees babies with hats, long sleeves and slathered in sun screen today. "Those mothers get it. They are teaching a life lesson early," he said.
This year's Relay for Life will be more intense for Cupp than the year prior. He will still wear a purple survivor shirt, but he has made peace with the cancer that will kill him.
"I know this will be my last survivor walk," said Cupp.
He said he is looking forward to being the keynote speaker. He is cherishing his last few months in the Air Force because he is being medically retired soon. On May 31, Cupp will have had 33 years in the Air Force. He has devoted himself to a life of service and has truly made a difference.
Many who know "Dixie" are moved by his commitment and the strength he has shown during his battle with cancer. He shows up to work, even if he is having a bad day. He waves and smiles, never to burden anyone with his troubles. The people he has inspired are endless in their numbers. He truly represents what is good about the human character and faith. The Air Force is lucky to have had his service for so many years.
Thank you Dixie for sharing your story and inspiring so many of us.