FORT BRAGG, NC (KSWO)- Sgt. Jack Stillman- a Patriot system repairer with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, 108th Air Defense Artillery Brigade- is by all accounts a good father, husband, brother, and soldier. Jack went through basic training right here at Fort Sill and just celebrated his 23rd birthday this week.
Despite extensive military training, deployments, PCSing and active duty service, that's not the hardest thing the Stillmans have been through. Cancer is the toughest battle he's ever been in.
Jack has Stage 4B Anaplastic Large T-Cell Lymphoma, an extremely rare and aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma with 75-85 percent five-year survival rate.
Army Sgt. Jack Stillman was diagnosed shortly after making history by winning the Iron Warrior Award in September 2016 at the Basic Leader Course, Leadership Award, and a Distinguished Honor Graduate at Fort Bragg. Jack was diagnosed for the 1st time October 6th, 2016 after doctors found a dime sized lump under his left arm by his ribs.
"We were about to sit down for dinner with the kids, and Jack's cell phone rang. The first thing we heard was, 'We're sorry to tell you this over the phone - we'd rather consult face to face, but we need to get moving quickly.' Jack's face went white, and he dropped the phone." Alina Stillman, Jack's wife, recalls.
The cancer spread rapidly. A PET scan exposed cancer in Jack's spleen, femur, spine, and bones.
"The scan lit up like a Christmas tree," Alina says. "He lost his eyebrows, his hair, and he gets so sick."
Alina and their two young sons, Aiden (6) and Jackson (4), are proud not only of Jack's service to our country but of his strength through all of the painful treatments and setbacks. They've watched as their rock and sole provider's health has deteriorated. Alina can only describe this as if their world crumbling around them.
"He started getting all the symptoms," Alina says. "Night sweats, unbearable pain under his arm. He would get up at night and pace around, asking 'why is this happening?'"
Jack had emergency surgery to remove the lymph nodes and was in and out of the hospital for 6 months receiving chemotherapy. His wife never leaves his side. Alina is by his side praying every day for Jack's strength and endurance.
"It was absolutely devastating to watch a strong man turn lifeless. His body was so frail. He lost around 20 pounds upon diagnosis. Our two boys came to visit him when Jack was admitted to the hospital for an infection he got when he had his first port put in, and you could tell how sad & frightened our boys were to see their daddy become a victim to this evil disease. There were many nights where I would lock myself in a bathroom and just cry and ask why."
Jack finished 6 rounds of aggressive (CHOEP) chemotherapy February 9th. One month later he was supposed to be on the road to recovery after showing great progress. The PET scan was clean, with just one slight hot spot that the doctors thought was just scar tissue where a lymph node had been removed. Jack was given the all clear on his last day of chemotherapy.
Just four weeks later, despite completing the harsh treatments, Jack fell ill again March 2017 with a 102.5-degree fever and severe calf pain. Another lump was found on Jack's leg. Doctors confirmed the Stillmans' worst fears—the stage 4 cancer has returned and, this time, it is even more aggressive than before.
"Cancer is just so evil. I look at my husband and just feel so helpless because, in reality, there isn't anything I can do to make the pain go away, to make this evil disease flee from his body and never come back again. I wish I could take it all away. Some days it hits me harder than others. Some days I just want to curl up in a ball and scream. Soon Jack will begin to lose all his hair again, and his body will once again become frail. For the second time. A battle he's been fighting for 8 months, a battle that we had that we won…"
Jack has undergoing grueling high-dose chemotherapy in hopes that his body will respond to a clinical trial called CAR-T cell therapy at the University of North Carolina and an autologous stem cell transplant.
Currently, Jack is in remission but that doesn't mean he is out of the woods. This is just the first step towards getting the experimental treatment his family hopes will be the cure they are searching for. Jack will continue to receive brentuximab and intrathecal chemotherapy until the stem cell transplant. Doctors are performing tests to make sure Jack's body is ready for the transplant/CAR-T cell trial.
"Our last chance of hope is a Stem Cell transplant along with a CD30 CAR T CELL clinical trial. Which he will begin in just a few weeks. The prep began a few months ago. They took out his T cells a few weeks ago and began re-engineering them, they will then infuse those t cells back into Jack, which is the clinical trial CAR-T CELL therapy part. The actual transplant part, they will remove his stem cells next week, and infuse them back into Jack on June 20th."
Up next, Jack will be in the hospital for 6 weeks for the transplant while he suffers through high doses of chemo and stem cell collection. Doctors will then re-engineer his cells and infuse them back into him.
"For me, it is so hard to see the person you love most, fight for his life. It is absolutely devastating. & what's worse, is that there is nothing I can do to take this away from him, to make the cancer go away and to never come back. It breaks me. I have learned how to hold back tears because when I cry, my husband gets upset. But some days, it just hits me harder than other days, and holding in tears isn't possible. I cry, we cry. We shed tears together, but at the end of the day, I know that if anyone can beat this evil monster, it's my husband. He is the strongest person that I know. His motivation, positive attitude, and faith are what will get him through this."
But, prolonged hospital stays and being stationed far from their families makes maintaining a stable home life difficult. The couple works hard to fill their home and children's lives with love and happiness but it's not always possible to be together. Alina is a full-time caretaker for Jack and their children and therefore unable to work outside of the home.
"Aiden asks me: 'mommy, why is daddy sick? How did daddy get sick?' How do you even begin to explain to a child just HOW sick their daddy is? Their Superman. Their all-time favorite superhero. The man that's been there since the beginning. Sick with cancer. A very rare type. A disease that has no cure. You can't. You can't sit there and stare into your child's face & tell them just HOW sick their father is. So you start to come up with ways to try to explain using kid-friendly terms where they understand daddy is sick, but not how sick. Cancer is ugly. It's an ugly disease. A disease that started with a small lump underneath my husband's left arm. The arms that hold me. The arms that he throws around our boys to give them the biggest hugs possible. and then the disease works its way through the body. Everywhere. Into his chest. The chest I rest my head on. The chest I shed thousands of tears on. The chest that carries the heart of the man I love so dearly. Cancer shows no mercy. It doesn't care that you're 22 years old, just beginning your life. That you have a whole life ahead of you. It doesn't care that you have 2 little boys ages 4 and 5 years old. It doesn't care that you have a wife. A wife that pleads to God day & night, for this disease to be taken away from the man she can't spend the rest of her life without. The man his family so dearly needs. I don't know why my husband has cancer. I don't know why he has such a rare form of it. But what I do know, is that we will keep on fighting. Because we are stronger than cancer. God is the ultimate physician. & our God is a miracle working God. We see miracles happen every day and soon, we will find ours."
The thing that stands out most about the Stillman family is their positivity and love of life, even in the worst of situations.