How an Air Guard pilot beat cancer, continued to fly

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Tamara R. Dabney
  • 103rd Airlift Wing

Air Force Lt. Col. Richard Paul Mastalerz II works as a pilot, full-time for United Airlines and part-time for the Connecticut Air National Guard, where he also serves as Deputy Group Commander of the 103rd Operations Group. Mastalerz, a husband and father of two children, has always found ways to overcome the stress of maintaining his demanding work schedule and family life.

However, in the Spring of 2020, when he began having digestive problems, Mastalerz thought that his busy lifestyle may have started to take a toll on his health.

“I was flying for the airline internationally and working on the backside of the clock sometimes, but it was totally manageable,” said Mastalerz, who, in 2020, also served as the 118th Airlift Squadron Commander. “I thought, maybe my eating habits aren't the best, but I noticed that my digestive system wasn't right. I would have to go to the bathroom eight or nine times a day. I always attributed it to that lifestyle-- being a husband, a father of two, a squadron commander, flying C-130s, and being a United Airlines pilot.”

Less than a month after Mastalerz began having digestive problems, COVID-19 infection rates began to increase around the world. In response to the outbreak, United Airlines suspended more than half of its flights, and Mastalerz was unable to fly for the airline for several months. Since he was unable to fly for United, Mastalerz volunteered to be put on military orders and fly for the Guard full-time. He assumed that having a break from his job at United would decrease his stress level, and thus, alleviate his digestive problems.

“When I got on orders, I was able to kind of stabilize my life, where I'm eating regularly, going to the gym, getting a good diet, and good sleep, but I noticed that my digestive issues were not getting any better,” said Mastalerz. “I credit my wife-- she said ‘maybe you should go see your primary care doctor.’”

So, in August 2020, Mastalerz took his wife’s advice and went to see his primary care physician. His physician ordered lab work to test for common conditions that could affect his digestion. After his lab work returned with no abnormal findings, Mastalerz’s doctor ordered a colonoscopy.

“I had just turned 45 and my doctor said, ‘Well, you're at a prime age for when we do a colonoscopy,’” said Mastalerz. “So, in December 2020, I had my first colonoscopy, and the procedure was fine until I woke up and the doctor who performed the procedure said, ‘hey, I hate to break the bad news, it's not confirmed yet, but we found what looks like a tumor in your colon. We're gonna do a biopsy, but I'm just letting you know right now, it's not normal and it doesn't look right.’”

Two days later, at 9 a.m., Mastalerz got a phone call from his physician. Their fears had been confirmed.

“And that's when my world totally shifted,” said Mastalerz. “They couldn't stage it, but he said that they found a positive, cancerous tumor in my colon. That's when my whole life kind of stopped.”

More than 20 years of military service, over 3,600 flight hours, and multiple overseas deployments had not prepared Mastalerz for the battle he was about to face.

“I was grappling with the immediate details of what was going on,” said Mastalerz. “My initial reaction was all the range of emotions-- fear, anxiety, helplessness. After telling my wife and my kids, the next phone call I made was to the medical group and I said, ‘Hey, I just got diagnosed with cancer.’”

Mastalerz was diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer in men and women and the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. Mastalerz immediately thought about how his diagnosis would impact his family and potentially end his military career.

“The first thing that popped into my mind when I got diagnosed was being a husband and father,” said Mastalerz. “My son lives 30 minutes from me, but my daughter goes to college at the University of Utah, so we had to break the news to her over the phone, which was extremely difficult. With the reality of, not only the diagnosis, but so many questions that were not answered right away when they found the tumor, my mortality instantly came to mind. After processing that, within a few hours, the next thought was, ‘okay, am I going to be able to serve in the military?’ Even if I were to get healthy again, I thought that maybe, because of my diagnosis, my military career would be over and that I'd already had my last official military flight.”

His career was not immediately over. Though Mastalerz would not be able to fly, Lt. Col. Neal Byrne, 103rd Operations Group Commander, left the decision up to him as to whether he would continue to serve as a squadron commander while undergoing cancer treatment.

“[Byrne] supported me, without a doubt saying, ‘We're here for you. We're not going to leave you.’”

Mastalerz confided in several members of the 103rd who were closest to him. Col. Howard Suls, former Chief of Aeromedical Services for the 103rd Medical Group, as well as Chaplain, Col. David Larsen and others, reinforced Mastalerz’s resilience by assuring him that he would not have to fight his cancer battle without the support of his fellow airmen.

“[Suls and Larsen] both told me, ‘this isn't the end all, be all. We're going to get through this. We're going to battle this and we'll offer whatever support we can give.’”

Mastalerz began his uphill battle against colorectal cancer at Massachusetts General Hospital in January 2021. It was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, so for the safety of medical patients and staff, the cancer center did not allow people to accompany their family members as they received treatment. Mastalerz’s wife would drop him off at the cancer center for his radiation and chemotherapy, then pick him up eight hours later when the sessions ended.

Still, through the hardship, Mastalerz wanted life for himself and his family to be as normal as possible. It was the best way he knew how to deal with the diagnosis.

“My daughter would call very often because she was obviously concerned that her dad was diagnosed with cancer,” said Mastalerz. She even talked about withdrawing from school that semester. We assured her that, if there was a downturn in my treatment, we would have that conversation, but she needed to go to school and continue living her life. That's what you want for your kids. You don't want to impede on your children's growth and their life.”

Mastalerz also wanted the airmen under his command to continue their lives as normal. Few airmen knew that he was battling cancer.

“I didn't want the attention on me,” said Mastalerz. “I wanted to stay squadron commander because when I was not feeling good at home, recovering from chemo at least it gave me something normal. I booted up my laptop and went through my emails and did all that stuff when I felt good enough because I wanted a sense of normalcy, instead of just looking at four walls and watching Netflix.”

Mastalerz received eight rounds of chemotherapy, then 28 rounds of radiation therapy while taking chemotherapy pills. After a brief pause in treatment, he underwent a 6-hour long surgery to remove cancerous tissue and nine inches of his large intestine.

“The first few days after each chemo treatment just felt terrible,” said Mastalerz. “I had neuropathy where my fingers were tingling. If I touched anything, it felt like needles. I was extremely sensitive to cold. If I drank anything, it had to be room temperature or warmer; anything other than that, it was like drinking ice and it would freeze my whole throat. That's just a byproduct of one of the chemotherapies that I was undergoing.”

Mastalerz went through what many would consider a dark period, not knowing whether he would survive, much less be able to continue his career as a pilot. Now, in 2022, nearly two years after his cancer diagnosis, Mastalerz is a cancer survivor, and he has taken to the skies again.

On June 24, the weather was clear and sunny, with a high temperature of 82 degrees. On that day, surrounded by members of his aircrew who had helped him through some of his toughest days, Mastalerz piloted his first flight since his diagnosis.

“I became emotional as soon as I got airborne,” said Mastalerz. I just felt this overwhelming joy inside that what I just encountered for the last 18 months is now behind me and I'm starting a new chapter. Being able to physically do what I once was able to do without any restrictions and having the pure enjoyment of flying again was amazing. As I was flying, I got a little misty-eyed because I missed it so much. And the crew was fantastic.”

Mastalerz gives credit to his family and fellow members of the 103rd Airlift Wing for helping him make a full recovery.

“The love and support of my kids, my wife, and, of course, my parents and my in-laws, that kept me resilient,” said Mastalerz. “The camaraderie on the military side kept me resilient. And then, just trying to do things for the greater good, made me resilient too.”