Chief cycles through cancer

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley
  • 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
Lee Cooper has always been a tough guy.

But on the day this chief master sergeant found out he had prostate cancer, he sure didn't feel that way.

"I was supposed to be Superman," said Cooper. "I was a dad, a husband and a chief ... there wasn't supposed to be anything I couldn't fix or do."

Fast forward 12 months to July 2013. Just one week after finishing 44 fatiguing cancer treatments and being declared cancer-free, Cooper rode for the Air Force Cycling Team in the world's oldest, largest and longest bicycle touring event.

The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI, is a seven-day ride that covers 468 miles. It is a daunting goal even for riders in peak physical condition.

From the moment of diagnosis, nothing about the way Cooper conducted himself around his family or Airmen indicated he was battling the second most deadly form of cancer for American men.

Throughout his treatment, he kept up his duties as the chief controller at the 509th Operations Support Squadron while balancing time as a family man and continuing to cycle or run nearly every day.

"My father also had prostate cancer, so I knew I was at risk. When the nurse told me and my wife we had to come in to get the biopsy results, we figured it was the worst news," said Cooper. "It was very humbling, but I was 'lucky' and caught the cancer at the earliest stage possible."

His first instinct was to keep the bad news private. He told family members, but was hesitant to share it with too many coworkers. As the 509th OSS chief controller, he didn't want his personal problems to spill over into his responsibility of taking care of his air traffic control Airmen.

But he had long preached "faith and family first," and finally decided he had to share his situation with his Air Force family.

"I only talked to a few people about it at first, but I knew there would be murmurings or rumors about what was going on," said Cooper. "I'm not a big softie or anything, but I had an emotional moment and gathered my controllers. I told them I had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and I was looking into options. I then told them I appreciated their sincerity and concern, but that I didn't want anything to change."

And he made sure to set the tone so that very little did change.

"Any time he was at work, you couldn't tell he was dealing with a potential death sentence," said Senior Master Sgt. Thomas Scheving, the assistant chief controller for the 509th OSS. "Something that was such a big deal to the people around him didn't seem to faze him. He was so strong, and he kept taking care of his work and Airmen like usual."

According to Cooper, this way of dealing with a hardship was nothing special -- it was just the way he was raised. His father, who retired as a colonel after serving during the Vietnam War as a B-52 Stratofortress pilot, played an undeniable role in developing this mindset.

"My father always had loving arms and kind words, but a firm voice when needed," said Cooper. "I saw him go off to war several times, and he taught me to always surmount the obstacles life puts before you."

"When I found out I had been diagnosed with prostate cancer just like my father, it was just another obstacle to overcome," he said. "It was nothing extraordinary; it is just the way I was brought up -- never surrender, never admit defeat."

By his side throughout all the uncertainty was his loving wife, Kirstin. The couple met amidst a haze of '80s music and hairspray at the Thunderbirds Night Bar in Destin, Fla., and spent the next 25 years traveling the world together.

The two are quick to turn the conversation back to the other. To him, she is the true hero of the story.

"She supports me in any endeavor," said Cooper. "She is the pillar that gives me strength. Throughout this entire process, she never complained. I could not have done it without her."

To Kirstin, Leroy is the most amazing man.

As the chief dived into learning all he could about various treatments, Kirstin dived into books and magazines to see what foods she could cook to help keep his body healthy through the cancer treatments.

"Our day-to-day life didn't change too much, but we spent lots of time researching," said Kirstin. "Hearing he had cancer was a shock. All I could think was, 'I want my husband. Get the cancer out. I don't care what you have to do, just get it out.'

"Meanwhile, he acted like it was nothing," she added. "He had always been active doing marathons, road biking and triathlons. He is always on the go and that didn't change. His degree of determination amazed me."

Cooper's father, who passed away two years ago, chose to receive a prostatectomy. After seeing how it affected him, Cooper chose a different option.

"Doctors tried to suggest the same procedure for me, but it was my cancer and I had to choose what was best for me and my family," said Cooper. "I was too young to deal with some of the side effects."

He took his time to research the options, along the way ruling out open surgery, robotic surgery, radiation therapy and brachytherapy as possibilities. Nine months later, he settled on the least intrusive solution: proton beam therapy.

He was placed on permissive temporary duty status and began treatments in Oklahoma City May 6 this year.

Every morning after a thorough preparation routine, he put on a "neat bathrobe" and slid into position on a machine that looked like it belonged in a science fiction movie. A loud "ding" signaled for the room to be cleared, and a quiet clicking signaled for the proton beam to begin. The beam, which leaves surrounding tissue healthy, was angled directly into his cancer through his hips.

"The only side effect I had was fatigue, and it was so much easier on the body than traditional treatments would have been," said Cooper. "Again, I felt lucky. During my treatments, I met other men who were often much older and whose cancer had progressed further. I also met children from around the world who had brain tumors. I thought I had it bad, but then I would meet them and know just how privileged I was."

After each treatment, Cooper donned his riding gear and hit the road.

"I wanted to cycle, but the nurses told me no," he said. "So I asked my doctor and he said riding might be painful, but it wouldn't mess anything up."

During the two months of treatment, Cooper logged 1,011 miles. Although staying so active was partially in preparation for the RAGBRAI, it was also a way to mentally sort through what he was dealing with.

"Everyone has their relaxing thing to do, and cycling has always been my avenue to decompress," Cooper said. "It was my alone time to prioritize and think about the things going on in my life. It took me away and allowed me to escape."

On July 11, he was declared cancer-free and set out just days later to represent the U.S. Air Force in the RAGBRAI.

"Even on my best days, I can't do what he did and what he continues to do," said Kirstin. "He's a super guy, a super father and a super husband. To me, he is Superman."