Thursday, July 22, 2010

TOP STORY > >Cancer survivor takes on challenge of open road

By Maj. Belinda Petersen
Air Force Personnel Center Public Affairs

RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – A C-130 Hercules flight engineer with more than 700 deployed flying hours who is also a cancer survivor is riding his bike 4,000 miles across the U.S.

Senior Airman Brian Petras from the 50th Airlift Squadron at Little Rock Air Force Base is participating in the Sea to Shining Sea ride hosted by World T.E.A.M. Sports and sponsored by State Farm.

The team of 20 riders is composed of primarily wounded, ill, or injured servicemembers cycling across the U.S. The ride started in San Francisco, Calif., and will end at Virginia Beach, Va., July 24.

Last year, Airman Petras was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that usually occurs near the joints of the arm or leg. In Airman Petras’ case, it was found in his right foot.

Because this kind of cancer can spread easily, Airman Petras’ leg was amputated below the knee.

After his amputation Aug. 24, 2009, Airman Petras went through several months of chemotherapy, received a prosthetic leg and began rehabilitation.

“That was pretty rough,” Airman Petras said. “The chemo pretty much knocked me out. I felt sick. I could barely take care of myself. Luckily, I was able to get a prosthetic and walk around without crutches and still do certain things, but I was still really tired.”

In January, Airman Petras went to the Center for the Intrepid at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio for rehabilitation.

“It specializes in care for amputees and burn victims,” he said. “It’s mostly guys coming from Iraq and Afghanistan that are there.

“That place helped put things in perspective because here’s me with a below-the-knee amputation, rehabbing and getting done in three months and there are guys who’ve been there for years,” Airman Petras said. “They’re missing both of their legs, they’re missing (legs) above the knee, they’re missing arms and hands, or 90 percent of their body is burned. My coming in there is like a scratch; it’s not a big deal at all.”

There, Airman Petras met Staff Sgt. Marc Esposito, who was also at the CFI for injuries sustained in Afghanistan. They decided to take up the Sea to Shining Sea challenge together.

The Sea to Shining Sea team is cycling through deserts, climbing as high as 11,000 feet over mountains, and sometimes traveling more than 100 miles in one day. Along with Airman Petras and Sergeant Esposito, other Air Force riders include Scott Bilyeu, Christopher Frost and Kevin Sullivan.

“For most people, disabled or not, this is a physically and mentally impossible challenge,” said Melissa McKinley, State Farm’s public relations specialist for the team. “But for Airman Petras, it is an opportunity to prove to himself and others that he can still do everything he could before.”

“At first, I wanted to prove to the Air Force that I can still do my job without any problem,” Airman Petras said, “but during this experience, it became something more. The amazing people I have met on the team have inspired me, and now I want to be an inspiration to others and let them know that they can do anything they put their mind to.”

“Medical science has really changed lives and perceptions of disabilities,” he said. “With prosthetics, you can live a normal life and do the same things you did before. And I want to show others they can still serve their country.”

Airman Petras commended team sponsors for their support during the coast-to-coast ride.

“They have been there every step of the way, providing us with water breaks, helping with logistics and route planning, and rallying folks to turn out to cheer us on,” he said.

“The coolest part of this experience is seeing different individuals coming together as one team, adapting to the challenge, staying flexible and overcoming obstacles,” Sergeant Esposito said. “Just like in the special ops world, we can’t go into a mission without every single person coming together as a team.”

“The best part of the ride is seeing the joy on everyone’s faces,” Airman Petras said. “Hopefully this experience will show you can still be passionate about what you love to do.”

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