JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON HALL, Va. -- "The most difficult part of my journey as adult was when the doctor rolled up in his chair and told me that I had cancer," said Maj. Aaron Freeman. "It was devastating and unbelievable. It changed my life forever." As an officer in the U.S. Army, Aaron was accustomed to facing battles on many fronts. However, when faced with the battle against a rare form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in August 2007, nothing would be more vital to his life than the support of his immediate and military family. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma starts in cells called lymphocytes, which are part of the body's immune system, and can spread throughout the body. "I am a very healthy and active person, so when I began noticing a change, I knew something was wrong," said Aaron, executive officer, 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard). "I started having night sweats, fevers, loss of weight and appetite. I just had to see a specialist about it." Aaron soon learned the cause of his symptoms after visiting his physician.
"He said 'I don't know how to tell you this, but you have tumors and lesions throughout every area we just scanned. You have cancer throughout your body'," said Aaron, recalling the conversation with the physician. "I sat there and just took a deep breath. It was surreal. I walked right out of that office and called my wife." Julie Ann Freeman-Moore, Aaron's wife, said cancer was the last thing she was expecting to hear over the phone. "We were shocked by the diagnosis because it happened so quickly," said Julie. "Eventually, he went from running everyday to not being able to walk up stairs. I cried so much for the both of us because he just wanted to be so strong for me." Julie added every day since the diagnosis has been a struggle for the Freeman family. "We had to really fight through it," said Julie. "From the changes in our diet to the medical appointments, we did it together." Aaron underwent different forms of cancer treatments at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. for the next few years. "Going through all of the chemotherapy was the toughest," said Aaron. "I had very violent reactions to it. It took such a toll on my body."
Aaron, determined not to let his health hinder him from service to his country, continued to work.
"I didn't want my cancer to be a crutch or an excuse. I like working hard and nothing was going to keep me from doing my absolute best," said Aaron. "Plus, I've had great bosses over the years that understood what my family and I were going through. I was given a great opportunity to continue to work hard and to serve my country." Aaron's body began to slowly respond positively to the chemotherapy but was unable to reach full remission.
"It was both good and bad news," said Aaron. "The cancer was going away, but not completely. We had to make the decision to go for an autologous stem cell transplant." An autologous stem cell transplant is a medical process in which stem cells are removed, stored, and later given back to the same person. The procedure allows for the patient to recover faster from chemotherapy and radiation. Aaron underwent the transplant shortly after making his decision. Although his doctors saw dramatic improvement and he eventually reached full remission, the victory was short-lived. A follow-up exam a few weeks later uncovered traces of cancer still in his body.
"I thought I was doing better, but I guess there was a lot more fighting that I had to do," said Aaron. The doctors recommended that Aaron proceed with a donor stem cell transplant as an option.
"Fortunately, I didn't have to look far. I had two brothers who were, by prayer, perfect matches," said Aaron. "I couldn't believe it. It is very rare that both qualified." Both brothers immediately came to the hospital, but it was the younger brother, Seth Freeman, that was selected to donate stem cells.
"My procedure wasn't evasive at all. It only took a week," said Seth. "It was nothing compared to what he was going through."
Seth said Aaron would have done the same for him. "That was my brother, and we always did what we had to do to help each other," said Seth. "There was no question about doing it or not, because family is very important to me."
Aaron has been cancer free for more than three years but now deals with graft-versus-host disease, a disease which is caused when the transplanted immune cells attack the host's body cells.
"I have never broken a bone before the transplant, but now it has happened to three of them since. It also causes my body to swell a little, but you know what, I will take this disease over cancer any day. It's not life threatening, but very annoying," said Aaron. "I can still go to work and go home to be with my family." Having the support and care of his family played a monumental roll in the road to fight and recover from this illness. "I have gotten a lot of support over the years from friends and other Soldiers, but no one was more crucial than my wife. She encouraged me and pushed me when I couldn't do it myself," said Aaron. "I can honestly say if it was not for them I would not be here. She saved my life."