JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas --
April 10, 2016, 26-year old Staff Sgt. Grant Novotnak arrived at San Antonio Military Medical Center and was forced with reality hearing the dreaded, “you have cancer”.
Months after enduring difficulty breathing at night which then evolved into pain in his stomach and throughout his body, Novotnak finally had an answer for the symptoms he’d been suffering from. Stage four Hodgkin Lymphoma was hardly worthy of celebration.
“I had multiple tests run over several months because they couldn’t get a clear reading of what exactly the spot was that the scans showed,” the 59th Medical Wing’s medical technician said. “I was already starting to believe the unexplained spots they found on my right lung and in the area between my heart and lung were cancerous, but I was still a little scrambled when the doctor actually said the words that made it official.”
One week after his diagnosis, a port was placed under Novotnak’s skin to guide the chemotherapy directly into a large vein above the right side of his heart every other Thursday for the next six months.
Novotnak’s leadership made a big impact on his perspective on military leadership when they immediately got various Air Force programs involved and routed his scared parents across the country within a week to spend time with their son as he began the fight for his life.
“My mom and dad were both devastated and wanted to come be with me from the beginning, which was great,” Novotnak said. “For the chemo, the first few and the last few treatments were the hardest. I would almost pass out in the car on the way home every time. Fortunately, I didn’t vomit a lot, but I ached. It felt like my bones, or my cells somehow were just hurting from basically the poison in my body.”
A continued routine of rest and hydration replaced his daily Air Force life. Novotnak said the most exercise his body would allow him to endure was short walks around his home.
“I remember the second round of chemo, I came home and laid down to rest and I could feel my heart beating so loudly,” Novotnak said. “I mean, it was just BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, until I started drifting to sleep. I wasn’t sure if my heart was going to burst during this nap, but I just laid there and prayed I would wake up afterward.”
Throughout Novotnak’s treatment, he sought outlets that would take his mind off of the illness, two specifically he said panned out pretty well in the end.
“Awkwardly though, the convalescent leave did provide me some opportunities,” he said with a small grin. “A girl I knew from church, a civilian nurse, became my sobbing movie-style love story. She’s my wife now, so that was a huge win that kept me going during that time. I also had a lot of time to work on school and was able finish my CCAF and bachelor’s degrees.”
As he approached his final chemo treatment, less than a week before his 27th birthday, Novotnak’s wife threw him a party with family and friends to celebrate putting this battle behind them and his birthday all in one.
“I’ll never forget sitting there, just crying my eyes out uncontrollably with joy that I hadn’t seen my final birthday,” he said. “It was a pretty big, emotional deal when you’re faced with mortality. It’s not just a win for you when you beat cancer though, it’s for everyone in your circle. Most people don’t understand the burden that is knowing you’re the cause of your loved ones pain and worry. The party is really just everyone finally being able to exhale and was just a flood of emotions for all of us. It was this awkward mix of a sense of accomplishment, exhaustion and hope for the future.”
Novotnak said he always considered himself a patient person but through his battle with cancer, he found a whole new respect for the “hurry up and wait” phrase.
“Through all of this, I learned you’re really not in control of your circumstances,” he said. “We can schedule and plan our lives out, but who thinks they are going to be battling stage four cancer at 26-years old? This really bolstered my faith and has opened me up to more people than before. I just went through this difficult thing and actually beat it! Other people may be struggling with something and wonder what helped me and I’m wanting to be open enough to talk with them about it.”
Continuing his educational momentum, and impacted through his experience with his illness, Novotnak is perusing commissioning opportunities he hopes to lead him toward becoming an Oncologist.
“I’m not any different than anyone else,” he said. “Yes, I got through my battle with cancer, but I want to help other people do the same. Maybe it will help to be able to show them the scar on my chest and let them know they aren’t alone. This doesn’t have to be it. People always say to bounce back from hard times but I like to think of it like throwing a bouncy ball and watching it bounce forward. Progress past the previous point. I think I’ll tell them to bounce forward.”