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The madness we survive

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Joshua Hastings
  • 6th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

A renewed spirit and avidity to resume the life she previously had consumed Senior Airman Matilyn Million as she closed her most difficult chapter.

On Sept. 18, 2023, Million underwent her 12th and final chemotherapy treatment in Tampa, Florida.

“It was a surreal moment,” Million said. “I hugged my mom and cried. You got to ring a bell when you were done, so I rang the bell. I am happy I do not have to go back to that place.”

For the majority of the year, Million has battled stage III Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that affects the lymphatic system and causes swollen lymph nodes and growths throughout the body. Million, now 21 years old, discovered symptoms of her cancer in September 2022.

“One day I grabbed my neck and felt a lump inside,” Million said. “I did not think much of it right away. After that, I was on a Facetime call with my mom and she asked me what was on my neck. That was when I became concerned.”

Million proceeded by calling her supervisor at the 6th Medical Support Squadron laboratory, who encouraged her to seek medical attention immediately.

“I spent four hours in the emergency room that night,” Million said. “After drawing my blood and performing an ultrasound on my neck, the doctor diagnosed me with mono. I remember crying on the way home thinking, ‘Oh no, not mono.’”

After a follow-up appointment with her primary care manager, Million was referred to a hematologist oncologist to observe enlarged lymph nodes in her armpit. The oncologist dismissed the abnormalities as symptoms of mononucleosis. Million had been tested five more times for mononucleosis, with each test showing a positive result.

“They were all false positives from the cancer,” Million said. “The oncologist eventually sent me to an infectious disease doctor because of how large my lumps had gotten. My armpits would hurt because they were so big.”

Million went to the infectious disease doctor in January 2023, nearly four months after her visit to the emergency room. It was at this time that she discovered she did not have mononucleosis, but something else. Million was then referred to a surgeon for a biopsy to check one of her lumps.

In March 2023, Million had surgery and learned what had been the cause of her health issues for the last several months.

“When I called my mom, I cried,” Million said. “Saying out loud that I had cancer for the first time was hard. Telling her was when it set in.”

Although she had been managing worsening symptoms, including fatigue and enlarging growths in her body, Million continued to go to work at MacDill’s medical laboratory up until her chemotherapy treatments. She said that during the process of being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, she felt a sense of guilt for the times that she had to be away from work and at her medical appointments.

Prior to the madness of 2023, as she describes, Million was the booster club president for the entire 6th Medical Group. That role reflected her attitude and enthusiasm toward work and relationship with her coworkers.

“Million is absolutely the most positive person I have ever met,” said Staff Sgt. Ryley Bonelli, Million’s former supervisor at the 6th MDSS laboratory. “Even going through chemotherapy, she was making jokes and trying to make other people around her feel comfortable.”

From April to September of this year, Million had 12 chemotherapy treatments aimed at removing her cancer cells. Million said that she dreaded her final treatments as they caused her more pain and nausea.

“[Chemotherapy] is probably anyone’s worst nightmare,” Million said. “You get a port, like an IV needle, put in going straight to your heart so that everything can be pumped in everywhere. You get cleaned with special wipes and taped up to keep things secure, and that hurts. When they take off the tape, it feels like everything underneath is ripped off. You are given medicine to cope with the pain and nausea in around thirty-minute increments, and you are there for three to four hours each appointment.”

During the time, Million battled through cancer, she had the support of her mother who attended each treatment session and the support of the Air Force.

“The Air Force gave me the time off work I needed,” Million said. “They paid my mother to take care of me while I was being treated because I was unable to take care of myself. That was really nice. My leadership would bring me anything I needed because I was not driving then. They would show up for my chemotherapy treatments as well, and I appreciated them for that.”

After completing her last treatment, Million is cancer free. Although she will continue to have check-ups due to her compromised immune system, Million now has a renewed optimism toward her military career and the rest of her life.

“I am excited to get back on my feet and start working again,” Million said. “I am excited to progress and to test for staff [sergeant]. It has been hard to have so much time taken from me when I could have been making a name for myself. I am excited to be healthier and start working out and being as I was before.”

Million returned to work for the first time since her chemotherapy treatments on Nov. 1, 2023. Bonelli said that the 6th MDSS laboratory is focused on helping Million transition back to working as a technician and not tasking her with too much too soon.

Her Air Force career began with basic military training, same as every other enlisted Airman. Following the completion of BMT, Million went through thirteen months of training to become a laboratory technician. Her anticipation to start performing operational duties built throughout her training. Coming to MacDill for her first duty assignment, the last thing Million would have predicted was the battle she faced.

“Strength is what we gain from the madness we survive,” Million said. “I have a lot more respect for myself now. Cancer is the most difficult thing many people will ever go through, and it kills a lot of people. I am so young, and I have already dealt with this huge obstacle in my life. I made me realize I am a lot stronger than I thought I was.”