Student Pilot Survives Lymphoma, Continues Dream
LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- Capt. Dakota Olsen, a 310th Fighter Squadron student here, envisioned becoming a pilot starting at age 5. As Olsen looked into careers in high school, one of his mentors, a retired F-111 pilot, spoke with him about his experiences. The conversation led Olsen to apply for the Air Force Academy where he studied mechanical engineering. After graduation, he received a pilot slot for the initial pilot training course, or IPT, at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss.
Six weeks before completing IPT, Olsen was diagnosed with lymphoma.
"I used to watch the Montana Air National Guard execute dog fight maneuvers in F-16s over a military operating area," Olsen said. "Being told I had lymphoma was tough news to get, but the doctors were positive about being able to treat it."
Lymphoma is a type of blood cancer that occurs when B or T lymphocytes, the white blood cells that form part of the immune system and help protect the body from infection and disease, divide faster than normal cells, or live longer than they should.
The cancer may develop in the lymph nodes, spleen, bone marrow, blood or other organs and eventually form a tumor. Olsen's tumor in Olsen was located above his heart and in between his lungs, and had spread to a small spot in his neck and one below his diaphragm.
"I had a really bad cough due to the location of my tumor," Olsen said. "It was taking up a bit of space my lungs would normally use and compressed my esophagus. When it got to the point that I began coughing all night long and prevented me from getting any sleep, I went to the flight doctor for help."
Olsen went to Memphis, Tenn., to receive treatment after being diagnosed with stage III Hodgkins Lymphoma.
"My initial thoughts were 'This can't be happening. This is not fair,'" said Olsen's wife, Megan. "When you're sitting in a doctor's office talking about someone you love and his statistical chances of survival, it hits you hard because the person is someone you can't live without."
The treatment was seven months long, and split into two sections: chemotherapy every other week for six months, and radiation every weekday for a month.
"It took a toll on my body," Olsen said. "I began losing my hair, I had a metallic taste in my mouth and was constantly tired. After completing each chemo treatment, I had little to no energy. I couldn't do much more than lay on the couch for two days. Usually by the third day I would begin to feel well enough to begin working or do productive things around the house."
Olsen entered into a state of remission four months into chemotherapy. He continued chemotherapy and radiation to complete the treatment.
"We grew closer as a result of the disease, and I was fortunate to see how positive and strong Dakota is," Megan said. "When he was officially in remission, we were three months away from our wedding date and ready to move onto our next adventure."
Olsen met with a medical evaluation board approximately one year after being diagnosed. He was cleared to continue serving in the Air Force, and applied for a medical waiver to maintain his flying status.
After more than two years, Olsen hopped back into the cockpit and began the third phase of the initial pilot training course.
"It was awesome and a dream come true to fly again," he said. "(Flying) is something I will never take for granted because (lymphoma) gave me a different perspective on how lucky I am to do what I do."
Olsen is currently in the surface attack phase of the F-16 Fighting Falcon student pilot B-course, which is approximately two-thirds of the way through the course.
"The nine-month training program has been challenging because it's a demanding program with a lot of studying and new things to learn," Olsen said.
The journey has given Olsen more than an appreciation for flying.
"The tough path has given me steadfast determination," he said. "I hope to complete the F-16 training and have a long career filled with flying assignments."