One Airman’s story to beating cancer, exceeding standards

by Airman 1st Class Trevor Rhynes
86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

“I felt like I was in an improv acting class and the teacher just said, ‘OK, today we’re acting out extreme shock. You have cancer … go,’” said Staff Sgt. Kristofer Sirks, 86th Communications Squadron systems control shift supervisor.

While deployed to Afghanistan in October 2011, Sirks found out he had cancer.

“I began experiencing intense abdominal pain and it eventually got to the point where I couldn’t stand upright,” he said. “I was able to seek immediate attention in our 24/7 health clinic. From there I was advised to have an ultrasound done to undergo further testing.”

Half an hour after his ultrasound, Sirks was notified that he had a tumor the size of a nickel.

“The colonel told me they were 99 percent sure it was cancerous, but couldn’t be sure without a biopsy,” Sirks said. “In order to do that, I had to be medically evacuated to Ramstein Air Base and I had three hours to pack.”

In that time, Sirks had to out-process and notify his family and the members of his deployed unit.

“My shock was then overcome with stress. I needed to get all of my belongings packed, notify my unit I was deployed with and, if I had time, notify my family, too,” Sirks said. “It wasn’t until after packing my things and out-processing that I found time to call my wife. It was then that I first broke down with grief.”

Before heading home he only had enough time to notify three people: his wife, brother and supervisor.

“The only people I was able to personally tell were my wife, Molly, my little brother, Luke, and my supervisor, then Staff Sgt. Ryan Hannigan,” Sirks said. “I wasn’t able to tell anybody else because I was still in Afghanistan and I was limited on time. My wife was in Ireland with her mother when I was able to contact her.”

They all reacted differently to the news.

“Molly’s reaction was that of determination. She told me she was on her way home and that she’d see me at the hospital in Landstuhl,” Sirks said. “I later found out she broke out in tears after she hung up.”

Sirks called his younger brother who upon hearing the news was
somber and quiet, he said. His brother notified the rest of the family while Sirks made a call to his supervisor.

“I told Hannigan I didn’t want anyone knowing about this from my work center until I was 100 percent certain it was cancer, even though the chances were very high,” Sirks said. “Hannigan is one of the most trustworthy people I know and he didn’t tell a soul. Eventually, we had to notify our chain of command, but that was a necessity.”

Originally, he didn’t tell anyone because he wasn’t sure if it was cancer and he didn’t want to make it a big deal, Sirks said.

“There were still a very small number of people I had told,” he said. “For me, I wanted to plan out very carefully how I was going to handle this. You only get one chance to break the news that you have cancer.”

He thought about it, then chose to keep the matter private.

“I didn’t want people to treat me differently in the work environment,” Sirks said. “People tend to be easier on those who are going through difficult times. For me, the more I enforce higher standards on myself, the more I tend to accomplish.”

Enforcing those standards allowed him to push himself physically, his wife said.

“Since his diagnosis he has not wanted any handouts or to be given special opportunities due to his cancer,” Molly said. “He has been insistent in working out and staying fit, not wanting to stay on a long profile. He even took the option of taking his (physical training) test earlier than was necessary.”

After making his recovery, Sirks was able to attend Airman Leadership School on Kapaun Air Station.

“My mantra, so to speak, was staying positive and not to have excuses,” Sirks said. “The moment you expect people to start doing you favors, or go easy on you, is the moment you’ve compromised what you are capable of accomplishing.”

Battling back from cancer has changed Sirks personally and professionally.

“Now, he is able to let stress roll off him and involve himself in relaxing activities, such as bike rides, reading a book and just enjoying the sun,” Molly said. “Before his diagnosis, he was always very stressed and anxious from work, but now he
seems more able to adapt and use stressors to improve his behaviors, rather than to inhibit his productivity.”

“The change I saw in Sirks wasn’t one that you’d expect from someone who was just diagnosed with cancer,” said Hannigan, now a technical sergeant who works with the 86th Communications Squadron systems control branch training NCOIC. “He was more driven, determined and willing to help out with any mission requirements. In other words, his diagnosis did not faze him in a negative way, it challenged him to raise the standard for himself.”

This is the first time Sirks has shared his experiences with anyone outside of his immediate circle. He said he hopes fellow Airmen will stay positive, disciplined and hold themselves to a higher standard while going through their own issues.

“I would have had a much harder time without my wife, family and friends,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s important that we get the word out. Difficult times can be turned over on themselves if you take the right approach, use (that experience) as a tool to better yourself, not as a way to justify lowering expectations.”

Sirks has been in remission for four months and has sewn on his current rank of staff sergeant after earning the John Levitow Award as the ALS top graduate for class 2012-5.