By Dave Smith
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — It would have been easier to quit.
In the summer of 2014 Staff Sgt. Ryan Meston, space system operator with the 4th Space Control Squadron at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, went through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation for testicular cancer. He was in remission and things were looking good.
During a follow up visit in early 2015, a blood test showed worrisome results. The oncologist said it was likely a fluke and had him come in for another test. Nobody expected what happened next.
On a sunny Saturday he received a phone call concerning the results. Across the impersonal distance of a telephone conversation, the voice on the other end of the line told him he now had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
“I literally broke down,” Meston said. “I fell to the ground. It was not a fun phone call.”
That’s a telling statement for Meston, who is known as a fun loving person. His family — wife Andrea and children Luke and Evelynn — pulled together and made it through an extremely tough time. They faced the challenges, followed the treatment procedures and were glad to put cancer in their rear view mirror, getting on with life.
After the testicular cancer was deemed to be in remission, they were able to catch their collective breaths and get back to being a family again. Or so they thought. Spinning back up to face this new threat, the Mestons would take on a foe that, when measured by National Cancer Institute survival rates, was worse.
Treatments for leukemia began locally and moved to Colorado Blood Cancer Institute in Denver. The first rounds of chemotherapy were nothing new to Meston, but after five attempts at treating him with different drugs, the situation didn’t look promising.
“It kind of worked, then it didn’t,” he said. “They tried another special (drug) that was a four-week treatment and it worked three weeks then failed.”
From 2005-2011 the survival rate for Leukemia was 62 percent. About 14,000 males are expected to die from the aggressive blood cancer in 2016, according to National Cancer Institute data. The numbers seemed to be against him, and with treatments failing, things were not looking positive for Meston.
As a dark prognosis closed in, a ray of hope broke through. His care team at CBCI suggested he go to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, where he could receive experimental T-cell therapy. Along with the hope came a degree of uncertainty.
Meston was experiencing seizures due to low blood pressure caused by his treatments. He knew there was a four-page document detailing possible side effects of the experimental treatments.
“When I left for Seattle I was not sure I was coming back,” Meston said. “I don’t remember much about the first few weeks there.”
He didn’t go Seattle alone; Andrea went with him. That presented another hardship for the young family: what to do with the children. Fortunately, Meston’s parents live in the area and were able to take the kids while the couple, and the hopes of the family, went west.
Since he was first diagnosed with testicular cancer, he hadn’t seen much of his children due to the sensitivity of his immune system. By the time he returned home from almost three months in Seattle, it would be about one year of not really being with them, he said. For Andrea it would end up being about half that.
“We did some Skype and Facebook Messenger,” he said, “But that’s all.”
The couple lived at Fred Hutch and Meston was in the center daily. He fought with high fevers in the 109 degree range and then the effects of treatment. The experimental procedure required 10 radiation sessions before he was ready to receive donor cells that would essentially replace his immune system.
Happily the treatment was successful and he, and his family, are on the road to a full recovery. After three bone marrow biopsies and several blood tests, his care team said the leukemia was in remission.
“Now I am at 100 days (of no cancer),” Meston said. “That’s a big milestone. I’m pretty excited.”
All of the bone marrow in Meston’s body now is donor marrow. The kind act of the donor is something that will permanently leave its mark on Meston internally and externally.
“Your traits change,” he said. “My hair is darker now, and I used to hate regular Red Bull, but now I can’t get enough.”
After a year the identity of the donor will be revealed to Meston and he is curious to see how many of that person’s traits carried over from their marrow.
The next step for Meston is to regain his health, mainly by gaining weight. Through the process of fighting two different cancers, the 6-foot-1-inch Airman lost 70 pounds. When he was diagnosed with testicular cancer he tipped the scales at 180 pounds. Treatments for both cancers left him a shell of his former self at 110 pounds. He is now up to 120 and rising.
“A nutritionist told me whenever I see a milkshake, get it,” he said.
Meston credits his family, both biological and Air Force versions, for helping him make it through such devastating experiences back to back. Fellow members of the 4th SPCS jumped in and helped whenever needed along the way. If he needed childcare, they would find it for him. Squad mates brought groceries and other things Meston’s family needed.
“The squadron cleaned his house so it was ready when he came back (from Seattle),” said Master Sgt. Gary Larsen, first sergeant of the 4th SPCS. “We wanted it to be immune-system-ready for his weakened system.”
Larsen also worked with the Denver Broncos, through the Dear Jack Foundation, to present Meston, a lifelong fan, with some mementos.
“I thought it would be cool if I could get him a signed jersey or something,” said Larsen.
The foundation put him in touch with the Broncos directly, who said they would be glad to help. A week later a care package arrived at Meston’s home. It included a shirt autographed by linebacker DeMarcus Ware, autographed picture of John Elway and a personal letter from the team wishing him well. The 4th SPCS leadership got together and put it all in a frame, Larsen said.
Now, like his favorite football team, Meston has a couple of victories under his belt and the future is looking bright. He is anxious to get back to work and family life.
“Ryan and his family are a true testament to the word resiliency,” Larsen said.