JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas – With words of love and gratitude for his family’s support, Air Force Master Sgt. William “Mac” McMillan rang the cowbell March 27, a joyful sound signifying his last round of radiation at Brooke Army Medical Center.
The tinny sound echoed in the near-empty hall usually bustling with family and friends eager to celebrate their loved one’s milestone.
In this pandemic-marked year, McMillan was only able to bring one visitor and one photographer into the ward to witness his relief and joy at leaving another round of radiation behind him. This time, McMillan chose to bring Air Force Col. Christopher Paige, 959th Medical Group commander, and Senior Master Sgt. Robert Wick, his squadron superintendent, his staunchest work supporters over the past few years.
With social distancing in mind, Paige and McMillan bumped elbows COVID-era style in celebration and shared in a prayer of gratitude for McMillan’s recovery and for the healthcare professionals who have never given up on him, no matter how dire the outlook.
McMillan was first diagnosed with cancer four years ago. A former medic aiming for a commission, McMillan had been accepted into the Interservice Physician Assistant Program at the Army Medical Center of Excellence here in late 2014. Two years into the program, he went to the doctor with stomach issues and was given a colonoscopy. The 33-year-old learned he had colon cancer, a disease that typically occurs to people later in life.
“I was shocked,” he said. “I was so focused on the future; my wife, Christy, was pregnant with our baby girl.”
McMillan was scheduled for 12 rounds of chemotherapy; however on the fifth round his abdomen perforated and, near death, he was rushed into emergency surgery. Refusing to give in to cancer, he continued his treatment at MD Anderson in Houston.
In October 2016, his daughter Aria was born and McMillan’s doctors declared him cancer free. When he heard the news, “I was incredibly grateful and full of joy,” he said. “It was an amazing time.”
With a clean bill of health, McMillan finished his bachelor’s degree and started on IPAP Phase 2, the clinical portion of the program, at BAMC.
But in January 2018, he developed an ache in his lower back that grew progressively worse. McMillan couldn’t eat or sleep but was desperate, with five months to go, to finish his PA program. He lost 50 pounds in two months. “It was so bad in the end that I would see a patient, then go somewhere alone and cry from the pain. I was just so motivated to finish.”
McMillan finally had an MRI and was hit with devastating news. “They told me I had tumors up and down my spine,” he said. “I had more scans, and I had tumors in my lungs, femur, abdominals, brain, basically all over my body.”
McMillan had brain surgery to remove the tumor and started on 10 rounds of spine radiation, marking the first time he rang a cowbell at BAMC. After a second brain tumor was removed, it kicked off 10 rounds of brain radiation. It was for this latest round that he rang the cowbell last week.
He also restarted chemotherapy, which he’s been told he will be on for life. “I’m on round 49,” he said. “Sadly, I’ll never be able to ring the bell for my last round of chemo.”
McMillan may have lost his dream of becoming a physician assistant, but has never lost sight of his faith or his hope. He works full time, spends time with his family, and works out up to five times a week, oftentimes with a chemo pump still attached from a recent treatment. Until COVID emptied offices and halls, McMillan served as the 959th Medical Group’s executive officer and also assisted with BAMC’s Joint Commission readiness to ensure the hospital follows the most stringent safety and quality guidance.
Still aiding the mission from home, McMillan will reach his 20-year mark in July 2020, and his retirement in September of this year. “I’ve been working my tail off,” he said. “I can’t deploy but I can still contribute.”
McMillan recalls when he was discharged and his doctor asked him if he wanted to know his prognosis. He didn’t want to know; his fate was in God’s hands, he told the doctor. He later saw in his discharge paperwork that doctors had predicted he would have four months to live. That was two years ago.
With his high school sweetheart and now-3-year-old daughter Aria at his side, giving up isn’t an option, he said. McMillan's new mission in life is to continue being the best husband and father he can be and to encourage others, whether it's on social media or in support groups, who are dealing with their own challenges. He believes these are the reasons he's still here.
“I tell them I don’t care if you had cancer or a hangnail, you have something in your past that’s an obstacle. It’s ok to be sad, knocked down, the key is getting up,” he said, noting it’s a message that’s gained even more relevance as people around the globe deal with the pandemic and related uncertainty and illness.
McMillan may never ring the cowbell again at BAMC, but that sound is fleeting. This Airman plans to have a much more lasting impact on the world.
”I’ve been knocked down so much, but I get up and dust off and push forward. Why? Because I found my reason -- my wife and my child. There’s always a reason to go on and there’s always hope.”