Count Tech. Sgt. LaPaul Williams as a survivor.
Williams, a 5th Air Support Operations Squadron fighter duty technician stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer. Dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans affects the lower back and is typically seen in people under the age of 18 and over the age of 45. Williams was 29 when diagnosed.
Dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans looks like a bump on your back, then it grows and starts to get taller and pink at the top, Williams said.
“I thought it was nothing,” he said. “I thought it was just a bump.”
Williams returned from a temporary duty assignment to Hawaii in 2014 and went to the doctor and then to a dermatologist to check on the growing bump. The dermatologist decided surgery was the best option to remove the bump.
Williams headed in for surgery at Madigan Army Medical Center with his wife, Chineka, who was with him the entire time. Everything was going as planned. He was making light of the situation, joking with the intern who was learning how to cut peoples backs open, commenting on the giant needle they used to numb his back.
Williams said once they cut most of it out, the doctor stopped and made a statement that there was something wrong.
“(They’re) tumors,” the doctor said. “I don’t know what kind, but there are tumors deeper in your back.”
They stopped the operation, stitched up Williams and sent him to get X-rays. He waited until the doctors confirmed it was dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans until he told his family.
“The afternoon I told my parents, as most mothers would be, she was freaked out,” Williams said. “We’re a very close knit Christian family. They asked if I was alright, if I needed them here.”
Williams wife was there supporting him every step.
“I don’t sit down,” Williams said. “She would tell me to rest, but I was a pain in the butt.”
Williams wasn’t scared with his diagnosis. He was a little shocked, but he wanted to know what he did to cause it and how he could fix it. The doctor told Williams there was nothing he could have done to prevent it. Williams was extremely hopeful during the entire ordeal.
About a month after his first surgery, Williams went back to Madigan for another surgery so the doctors could remove more of the tumors. They cut a diamond shape out of his back to remove them.
For six weeks, he had a tube from his back to his chest as his back was healing from the fluid that was being drained. He healed quicker than normal.
Because of the nature of William’s job, he was immediately moved off duty and sent to see if he was allowed to stay in the Air Force. But, Williams said he had an extremely supportive Air Force family.
His supervisor, peers and commander were all hopeful for him, offering their support through it all. They let him know if there was anything he needed, he just had to ask.
“They didn’t bother me or limit me,” Williams said of his chain of command. “They watched my back and let me take care of myself.”
During his diagnosis, Williams said his family helped him most. They never looked at him with sad eyes or blamed anything or anyone for what happened. They told him they would help him get through it, if he needed anything to call and they would stop and make time.
“There are a lot of things you can buy and replace,” Williams said. “But time spent with a person is something you can’t. When people decide to use some of their time for you, it’s humbling.”
Williams also said a positive attitude was key to facing this type of diagnosis.
“Positive thoughts have absolute results when it comes to healing,” Williams said. “Those who are hopeful and have positive thoughts regardless of the situation, they turn out the best.”
A month after his second surgery, Williams was in remission. He said there is always a chance for the cancer to return, and if it does, it will be worse and more aggressive. He still goes to the doctor every six months to make sure it hasn’t returned, and that will continue for the rest of his life.
“I understand I am playing on borrowed time,” Williams said. “I’m still able to serve, and I’m thankful for that. I’m still ranking up and making friends. Anything that’s worth it is worth the effort.”