Fighting cancer, pushing forward

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Veronica Perez
  • 90th Missile Wing Public Affairs
Every day Montgomery Eriksen, 90th Missile Wing videographer, could see the ocean from his hospital room window and every day he would tell himself, "I'm going to walk on that beach."

Walking does not come easy to someone going through routine chemotherapy treatments. You have little to no energy, you can barely keep down food, you go through daily mood swings and your body feels shaky and numb, he said. Despite all of this, Eriksen made it his goal to walk along the coast that was just four miles away.

On January 12, 2015, Eriksen's world changed forever. Days earlier, he informed his supervisor, Captain Edith Sakura, 90th Missile Wing public affairs chief, he was not feeling like his usual self. He was experiencing symptoms such as sweating, tiredness and difficulty breathing. 

At Sakura's insistence, Monty stopped by the Cheyenne Veteran's Administration Medical Center for what he thought would be a routine check-up. Monty's fiancée, Christine Escobar, a retired Army sergeant first class, remembers the normalness of that day.

"He told me he wasn't feeling well and that he was going to the VA, so I thought I'll see you when you get home," she said. "It's probably bronchitis and they'll give him antibiotics and he'll be good to go." 

After a day of blood tests, x-rays and CAT scans, doctors informed Eriksen there was evidence of a form of lymphatic cancer. 

"They told me 'we're sorry this happened to such a young, strong guy with a promising future'," he said. "I was panicking because I didn't know what to think."

Eriksen was put on bed-rest for two days, which gave him time to process all the information.

"I've never had to deal with that," he said. "My life has always been in my control."

While on bed-rest, Eriksen received a call from his doctor asking him to come in a day earlier - his white-blood cell count had more than tripled.

He was rushed to the VA Eastern Colorado in Denver. During the ride, he started to feel the full-weight of his situation.

"We weren't prepared for everything," he said. "I was totally overwhelmed because things were happening too quickly; I felt fear and uncertainty."

Once in Denver, doctors informed Escobar and Eriksen of the full diagnosis - acute lymphatic leukemia.

Escobar was shocked. "This isn't happening, this isn't true, this isn't possible," she said.

After hours of deliberation, Eriksen mustered up the courage to phone his daughter Tatiania Eriksen.

"I didn't want to hurt her," he said. "As a father you don't want to hurt your child...because it devastates you."

Tatiania booked the next flight from Los Angeles to Denver to be by her father's side.

In order to be closer to his daughter, Eriksen decided to begin his chemotherapy treatments at the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center. During the plane ride from Denver to L.A., accompanied by his fiancée and daughter, Eriksen's feeling shifted from denial to extreme anger.

"For the first time I'm dealing with an enemy that I don't know how to deal with," he said.

Eriksen's will to fight was put to the test as he began chemotherapy treatments. He spiraled into a deep depression unlike any he ever faced.

"I'd look out the window and see people doing things that I knew I couldn't do anymore," he said. "I felt like I was dead already."

Escobar expressed being humbled by Eriksen's struggle. 

"This big strong man is curled up in a ball and he's depressed and then the next minute he's angry, but can't even get out of bed without help," she said. 

One day, Eriksen received a call from Sakura. She was checking up on him and asked if she could run a half-marathon in his honor.

"He's always pushing forward and putting others before himself--on days when I don't feel like getting off the couch and running 6 to 8 miles, I tell myself, 'I'm sure Monty doesn't like doing chemotherapy." Sakura said.

For Eriksen, this display of support triggered a nerve in his soul and rekindled his core beliefs. "I remember looking over at (Chris) in tears thinking I can't believe people are doing this for me," he said. "I never thought I impacted people in that way."

With the support of his colleagues, Eriksen was determined to prove he was still capable of fighting. He went outside and exercised for the first time since entering the hospital, he said. His blood levels were so low that a minor fall could have caused him to bleed to death internally.

"What Monty wanted to show to Captain Sakura was that you're fighting for me, so I'm going to fight too," Escobar said. "I'm going to show you; I'm going to prove to you that I'm fighting as well."

That same day, Eriksen and Escobar finally achieved the goal of visiting the beach together.

"The sun was hitting us and I closed my eyes and felt the salt air, the crashing of the waves..." he said. "...there was peace and calm within me."

Almost instantly there was a profound change in Eriksen. His mood was lifted, his spirits were high and he had a newfound purpose in life, he said. Congruently, doctors informed him that his cancer had gone into complete remission.

"Before this all happened, it seemed like everything I did was in my own vanity, without considering the impact it might take upon others," he said. "I'm going to do the best that I can to help other people because now I know that is what I'm supposed to do."

Those closest to him have noticed the change.

"Now I think his drive is more focused than before and little things don't matter anymore," Escobar said. "We have more of a purpose now."

"He is a completely different person," Sakura said. "He smiles more and has this internal drive that's pushing him forward; it's actually quite amazing to see his change in demeanor and attitude."

Eriksen has learned more than he ever thought imaginable from this experience, he said.

"Through this ordeal I had two choices - give up or fight the fight," he said. "Life is not full of guarantees; what we make of the uncertainty is the true miracle."

Eriksen has since reached out to a center in Los Angeles for homeless veterans to help motivate them to overcome their struggles. He eagerly wants to share his journey with other veterans in order to give them hope and put his optimistic perspective into practice.

"You make hope knowing that others believe in you; you make hope because you believe in yourself and you don't live in the past, but you live for today and tomorrow." 

In the future, he plans to open a sanctuary for veterans going through similar issues. The sanctuary will focus on counseling, group support and different avenues of healing.

"Every day the world throws challenges our way. It's up to each of us what we do with them," he said. "We either live in that negativity and let it bring us down, or we choose to turn it around to make it into a positive, winning story."

Eriksen's story is far from over. He underwent a spinal infusion treatment March 2, 2015 in L.A. In order to keep the effects of chemo out of his brain, he received treatments directly through his spinal cord.

Eriksen returned to Cheyenne in May and has started weekly chemo treatments at the Cheyenne Regional Medical Center and returned to light-duty at the 90MWPA office.

Co-worker Rich Oriez has no doubt Eriksen will overcome his illness to live a healthy, happy life.

He said, "If anybody can beat this, he will."

Eriksen will undergo a maintenance period of various treatments for two years. He admits he is excited to visit the ocean more frequently whenever he visits his daughter.

"I still have to try surfing," he said.

Escobar looked over to him with a relaxed smirk and replied, "Always a sailor."