NCO battles cancer while studying to be a sergeant major

By Jennifer Mattson, NCO JournalMay 16, 2012

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(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Soldiers routinely exemplify personal courage, one of the seven core Army Values, when they deploy to war zones, when they help fellow Soldiers and when they face great obstacles downrange. But courage can manifest itself in other ways, said the commandant of the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas.

"It's a lot easier to identify courage on the battlefield," said Command Sgt. Maj. Rory Malloy. "What we don't always recognize is the excellence in people and the courage that's not so easily identifiable or in the headlines. Someone displays a great deal of courage in combat and is awarded a high level medal, but true courage is like Master Sgt. Robert Bowman, who has gone through cancer.

"His attitude and his wife's and his children's attitudes are so moving. They are examples of courage that are displayed on a daily basis."

Before his diagnosis, Bowman was one of those Soldiers who avoided going to the hospital so as not to appear weak. Then, after being selected to attend the Sergeants Major Course at USASMA, he discovered he had liver cancer.

"The fear of the unknown is what scares Soldiers the most," Bowman said. "But I'll tell you, the sooner you catch it, the better chance you have of survival."

Bowman joined the Army in December 1990 for the chance to see the world and gain an education. As an 11B infantryman, he deployed twice to Iraq, and his second deployment lasted 15 months. After that, he became an ROTC instructor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, and while there was notified he was going to USASMA.

"To get into the Sergeants Major Academy, you have to have a clean bill of health. You have to have a full physical," Bowman said. "I went and passed with flying colors. The doc said there was some trouble or some issues with my liver, but that it wasn't serious."

However, during the first week in June, two months before classes at USASMA started, Bowman said he didn't feel like himself. He had night sweats, had a low-grade fever and felt weak. Bowman, who consistently scored at least 290 on his Army Physical Fitness Test, was reluctant to go to the hospital for something he thought was trivial.

"I did what every Army guy does," Bowman said. "I sloughed it off; I played it off in hopes that in four, five, six days, it would go away. Well it never went away. We got closer and closer to start time at the academy."

He said he didn't want to go to USASMA feeling like he had a flu, so he went for a checkup at William Beaumont Army Medical Center at Fort Bliss. He hoped they would give him something to take care of the fever. But after a week of testing for infectious diseases, the doctors decided to run a series of other tests for cancer. On June 15, he was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a cancer of the liver.

"They saw spots on my liver," he said. "That day, they took me in, admitted me in the hospital and put a port in my chest; that's how they administer the chemotherapy."

Bowman, who started his treatment immediately, sought a second opinion as the "chemo cocktail" made him tired and drained him of his energy.

"Right now, the best cancer treatment facility is the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, so we went down to MD Anderson," Bowman said. "Dr. Alexander (Bowman's doctor at William Beaumont) was very supportive of us getting a second opinion. He set up the travel for us, and set up everything for us.

"We were there for three days, and they did everything that Dr. Alexander and the team at William Beaumont had done. They came back … and the doctor said, 'You've got cancer.' She said, 'This style of cancer is very aggressive, and you will be lucky if you can stop it where it's at.'"

However, since the start of treatment, Bowman said, his doctors have actually shrunk the cancer in half.

To continue his treatment, Bowman returned to William Beaumont. Though there are nurses on staff to help him, it is his wife who takes care of him the most, he said.

"I've been married for 19 years to Coleen," Bowman said. "She is by far my bright and shining light throughout all of this. The people who suffer the most throughout all of this aren't the cancer patients, it's the family members who daily support that cancer patient.

"She's been a trooper throughout all of this. I love her to death, and I don't know what I'd do without her. … Home health care administers IVs and antibiotics. But she does all that when the urse doesn't come. She's the reason why I'm still here."

Though he lives three blocks away from USASMA, the academy's staff arranged for Bowman to take the nonresident Sergeants Major Course.

"What saved my life was the Sergeants Major Academy and the worry that something physical was going to keep me from doing what I was supposed to do," he said. "If you let it go, some cancers will kill you in 30 days."

The Army has access to life-saving drugs that oftentimes private insurance money isn't willing to pay, Bowman said. "I guess if you have to have cancer, being in the Army is a pretty dang good place to have it."

Bowman said he was fortunate to check himself in at the onset of feeling sick. Many people wait until it gets much worse and, oftentimes, it's their family members who push them to go to the hospital.

"Most Soldiers won't go in because they're Soldiers. They aren't going to go in for flu-like symptoms. They won't go; they're hard-headed. I'm not saying to go in for … every muscle pain you have or every cough. But most people know their body, and you know when it's not right."

"Cancer doesn't hurt," Bowman said. "My liver doesn't hurt. But you're not supposed to be able to feel your liver, either. And I can feel my liver."

When he heard the news that he had cancer, he thought it was hereditary, and worried about his four daughters.

"If you do get cancer, figure out where it came from and how you got it," Bowman said. "I thought for sure mine was gene-related; it's not, it's environmental. Somehow, some way, the environment that I was in throughout my life is what caused my cancer. I'm not saying it was the military; I'm not saying it wasn't the military, either."

Throughout his treatment, Bowman has displayed a positive attitude, and his family has supported him constantly, Malloy said.

"His biggest concern isn't dying," Malloy said. "His biggest concern is he wants to be a sergeant major and go back to the line as a command sergeant major. When you look at his military records, he has valorous awards on the field of battle. He has been decorated as a war hero and has been recognized for his courage in battle. But what he's going through now, on his personal side, is way more impressive. Not to take away from his military record, but his whole attitude is really amazing."

Already, Bowman has surpassed the median survival duration of less than six months for people with inoperable liver cancer like his.

"The goal is to beat it," Bowman said, "and we have high hopes to beat it."