Killing Cancer with Ease, Precision, and Professionalism like an F-22

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Melissa Estevez
  • 477th Fighter Group Public Affairs

After a long battle with cancer, on Dec. 3, 2022, Lt. Col. John Deloney, F-22 Raptor instructor pilot and UPS 747 first officer, had his final flight on the F-22 Raptor. He accomplished over 2200 flying hours during his time.

In 2021 he noticed some unusual changes in his body including swelling to the face, legs and several lymph nodes throughout his body.

“Concerned, I went to the doctor and had several blood tests and a urinalysis, all of which came back negative for anything that might be causing the swelling,” said Deloney.

The CT scan showed at least 10 lymph nodes that were enlarged. He was eventually scheduled for a biopsy of one of my lymph nodes late in December of 2021.

“It came back a week later as positive for B-cell lymphoma,” said Deloney. “From there, we were off to the races as to how to kill the cancer.”

Deloney was diagnosed in January 2022 with Stage 4, Grade 1-2 follicular Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.

“My wife and I were literally in disbelief,” said Deloney. “I live a very healthy lifestyle and try to stay in shape, but obviously cancer gets a vote. From there, I felt the mix of emotions, to include fear, sadness, anger, and ultimately a strong desire to defeat the cancer. The emotional and mental side of having cancer is the most difficult, at least from my experience.”

When Deloney was diagnosed with cancer he was prohibited from flying the F-22. This was the first time in over 19 years that he was told he could not fly.

Deloney had wanted to fly the F-15C since he was 8 years old. He flew the F-15C Eagle for about 3.5 years and then had the opportunity to fly the F-22 Raptor for 13.5 years. Deloney said he has lived out his dream.

The mental approach to flying fighters Deloney had been taught over the years ultimately helped him battle with cancer.

“I treated fighting cancer just like I treated fighting a threat in the F-22, said Deloney. “My new mission this time wasn’t flying, it was fighting cancer and I wasn’t going to lose. Cancer was simply another threat that had to be eliminated.”

Deloney was referred to Alaska Oncology and Hematology.

“Our first meeting with Dr. Liu was surreal, listening to all the things that could happen, what the odds of survival were, and how I would possibly be treated,” said Deloney. “We spoke to him about getting a second opinion, where to get treatment (here in Anchorage vs a location out of state), and what my treatment would look like.”

Deloney and his wife initially thought he would receive four cycles of chemotherapy and possibly radiation. They were prepared for that battle.

On the day he was fully diagnosed with the specific type of lymphoma I (follicular), Dr. Liu called to inform them of a clinical trial involving precision immunotherapy that had opened up that morning and that he may be a candidate.

The doctor sent Deloney all the information on the clinical trial. Over the weekend he reviewed it alongside his wife.

“It was a lot to digest, but we ultimately felt that God was leading us to this trial,” said Deloney. “If I volunteered, I would be the first person in the United States to receive this drug as a first-line treatment.”

Ultimately, he volunteered and was given a physical exam with 39 different inclusion categories that would qualify him for the trial, which he met.

He received his first cycle of medication on Feb. 1 of 2022. Each treatment involved receiving a 1 mL subcutaneous shot of the drug. He received one shot per week the first month and then every three weeks following that. There were some potential side effects from the treatments, to include cytokine release storm (CRS), which he had the first two times he received a treatment.

“The CRS put me in the hospital where I was monitored and cared for by outstanding doctors and nurses at Providence Hospital,” said Deloney. “After the first two shots things stabilized in my body, and I no longer had CRS but would have joint aches and extreme tiredness for about a week following the injection.”

After 6 months Deloney was declared cancer free following CT scans, PET scans, and a bone marrow biopsy. After this long journey Deloney felt thankful to God, his family, friends and squadron for their thoughts, prayers, and hard work to advocate for him and care for him during this challenging chapter in his life.

Deloney spent 358 days without flying. He was eventually cleared to fly again on November 9, 2022, just one week prior to needing a formal retraining course.

“I had come to terms over the past year that I may never fly again, but to get the opportunity to fly again and “go out” on my terms, surrounded by my friends and family was more rewarding than you know,” said Deloney. “I feel that my soul can rest, and I can look back on an amazing flying career, one which exceeded nearly all my expectations and one which I am very blessed to have experienced.”

“There aren't many people I have seen fight as hard as he does for his country, his family and certainly for the hellions,” said Lt. Col. Patrick “Cletis” Pearson, 302nd Fighter Squadron commander. “We will never understand all the things that he has been through but that fight that he put up and that drive to succeed to end things on his terms, is why I think he is doing it right.”

After a bittersweet mix of emotions, Deloney said he and his wife determined it was time to move on with the next phase in life and were so thankful that he had the opportunity to have a fini flight.

“Surviving cancer has also helped me to re-prioritize things in my life and have a slightly different outlook on certain things I used to either value or not value,” said Deloney.

Deloney said cancer positively affected his personal life. It made his relationship with his wife and family better due to the emotional closeness that results from supporting someone through hard times.

“My wife helped me the most throughout the past year. She is about to retire from the Air Force Reserves and has supported me throughout my entire flying career while serving her country for 20 years and raising our three amazing children. She was my rock throughout my battle with cancer.”

“[Alaska Oncology and Hematology] are amazing and you feel like a person under their care, not like a patient. They kill cancer like an F-22 kills enemy aircraft…with ease, precision, and professionalism.”