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Recruiter surpasses biggest goal: beating cancer

  • Published
  • By Capt. Stacy Dunn
  • 344th Recruiting Squadron
Tech. Sgt. James "JR" Consejero, a successful Air Force recruiter, newly married family man, and model Airman, got a terrible shock in February 2006 -- a doctor told him he had six months or less to live.

Sergeant Consejero had enlisted in 1993 as a non-citizen, hoping to find direction in his life. He quickly decided to pursue his U.S. citizenship, and became a model Airman. But while the sergeant was building a great career and fulfilling his dreams, a silent killer was spreading inside his body.

in February 2006, on the same evening Sergeant Consejero surpassed his best physical fitness test score, he woke with extreme chest pain and reluctantly went to the hospital. Just hours later, doctors told him that X-rays revealed his bones were riddled with cavities, resulting from cancer.

"I had advanced multiple myeloma, lesions (tumors) that had spread all over my body," Sergeant Consejero said. "The test showed 80 percent of my cells were affected.

"The doctor said I had maybe three weeks to live if I did nothing, or six months with aggressive chemotherapy and all the unpleasantness that goes with it."

In the time since that fateful day, the noncommissioned officer discovered he is a fighter, learned the depth of the love of his family and friends, and gained a deeper joy for life.

"They say your life flashes before your eyes and now I know it's true," he said. "I kept thinking about my kids and my brand new wife."

Sergeant Consejero had married only three months before receiving the grim news. His wife was an active duty Airman deployed to Afghanistan at the time.

He was immediately admitted into the hospital and chemotherapy started within six hours. The sergeant wouldn't return home for the next six months, eventually being placed in a controlled comatose state.

His "Air Force family," members of his squadron, jumped in and took care of the necessary legal and family issues for their comrade.

"Had it not been for my squadron I don't know what I would have done," he said. "My family care plan went into effect at that very moment. My kids were picked up from school and brought to the hospital. My spouse was contacted, and within a day she was on a plane back to the states.

"I recall finally seeing her ... I didn't know what to say. I remember asking if she'd like the marriage annulled. I was so relieved when she said I was off my rocker."

Throughout the five-week, chemical-induced coma, painful treatments and total loss of hair, Sergeant Consejero said his friends and family never abandoned faith or gave up on his life.

"Everything was taken care of for me. I remember the [Air Force legal representative] coming to my room and updating all my paperwork immediately," he said. "Either my commander or the first sergeant was there every day. I don't remember ever waking up and not seeing someone in uniform. My squadron and the Air Force became not only my voice but also my family. All important decisions -- bills, job, kids, leave, communication and more bills -- were now handled by this super-efficient automatic Air Force machine. My house sprung a water leak one day and someone from the squadron quickly fixed it. It was an incredible comfort to know that although I was dying, all my affairs were taken care of."

The sergeant's inner strength showed from the start.

"I was hallucinating because of all the chemicals," he said. "I had no hair and was in extreme pain all over my body. My legs didn't work anymore because I had been out for so long, but I was alive. I wanted to go home. The doc said it would take a month of physical therapy for me to walk again ... I was walking in three days and, by gosh, I went home."

After aggressively treating the cancer for four months, doctors conducted a stem cell transfer and transplant.

To receive a transplant, doctors must first basically kill the immune system, which left Sergeant Consejero with virtually no way of fighting off disease. In this vulnerable state, even the most common viruses or bacteria could have had irreversible, life-threatening effects.

Despite complications, Sergeant Consejero was released for home following 11 weeks of treatment and therapy. 

Just when the emotional roller coaster appeared to be coming to an end, the bottom dropped out again. Despite his mental and physical exhaustion, he would have to endure another transplant, heavy chemotherapy, screening tests, additional bone marrow biopsies and screenings.

After what seemed like an eternity, the results came back.

"The doctor said that he didn't understand what happened to me. By all rights, I should be dead many times over," Sergeant Consejero said.

The doctor candidly informed the recruiter he decided not to continue treatment and that he was cancelling the next transplant, as well as the consolidation. He said there was nothing further he could do. The sergeant asked why.

"Because you're in remission," the doctor said.

"I was stunned, and apparently so were the other doctors," the sergeant said. "They said this never happened before."

Sergeant Consejero, now an officer accessions recruiter with the 344th Recruiting Squadron, said he appreciates what a rare case his cancer represents and is grateful for his new lease on life. The doctors told him he could possibly remain in remission for 10-15 years before requiring additional treatments.

"I was diagnosed on February 26, 2006 ... (and now) I'm at work continuing not only my career, but my life," the 15-year Air Force veteran said.  He returned to duty last month.

"I'm not saying I'll live forever, but I am forever thankful to the powers that be for this awesome experience. I hated the chemo, but I have never regretted the disease. It has changed my life forever."