Standing Up to Cancer: Reserve Citizen Airman fights rare disease with support from his unit

In Aug. 2012, Senior Airman John May joined the Air Force Reserve at Little Rock Air Force Base as a Traditional Reservist working at first with the maintenance squadron and then with the 96th Aerial Port Squadron. He was training for his first deployment with the unit when he was diagnosed with a rare cancer called alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma in April 2018. (courtesy photo)

Senior Airman John May poses with some of the awards he has earned during his service with the Air Force Reserve. May has been fighting a rare form of cancer since 2018 with the help and support of his fellow Reservists at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas. (courtesy photo)


A Reserve Citizen Airman assigned to the 913th Airlift Group, Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, is fighting a rare form of cancer with a lot of help from his fellow Reservists.

In Aug. 2012, Senior Airman John May joined the 913th Maintenance Squadron at Little Rock as a traditional Reservist. He later made the switch to the 96th Aerial Port Squadron. In April 2018, he was training for his first deployment with the unit when he was diagnosed with a rare cancer, alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma.

May was devastated, not just because of the diagnosis, by because he was not able to deploy with his fellow Airmen. 

Doctors immediately removed a tumor near his eye and followed up with radiation and chemotherapy. They said he was fortunate not to lose his eyesight.

“February of 2018 is when my symptoms of cancer first appeared,” May said. “I thought it was a severe sinus infection. Later on in April, while getting my physical for pre-deployment, they discovered a tumor the size of a baseball. This prompted the doctors to perform a 10-hour surgery to remove the tumor.” The procedure left him with several areas of titanium plating and mesh to replace areas of eroded bone.

Since his initial diagnosis, he has received the “all clear” from cancer twice; but it has reemerged three times since then. He is currently fighting the battle once again.

“A year later, after undergoing chemo and radiation, they found the cancer had metastasized and spread to distant parts of my body,” he said. “Doctors are now working to aggressively treat the cancer.”

May’s surgeries and subsequent treatment left him with visible scars, but did not alter his commitment to the Air Force and his fellow Airmen.

“I, along with his fellow Airmen, couldn’t ask for a better wingman,” said Master Sgt. Debra Gingrich,” the 913th AG’s Development and Training Flight program manager. “I saw how devastated he was when he couldn’t deploy. He is the type of person I want to serve with.”

Gingrich is helping lead efforts at Little Rock to support May as he continues to battle cancer.

“As a unit, we donate to charities each year to give back to the communities that support us,” she said. “We’ve supported John throughout his battle with cancer. This year we decided to help John as our official unit fund-raiser event.”

The unit also hosts blood drives throughout the year through a partnership established by Gingrich with the Arkansas Blood Institute in 2016. The unit held a drive in January that benefited May through the institute’s credit-to-patient plan.

This plan provides credits to May that offer financial assistance for services not covered by insurance.

“I am beyond thankful for my military family,” May said. “Their ongoing efforts to provide blood products, host fund raisers and their regular check-ins have played a major role in my motivation to continue the fight against cancer. Thank you all!” #ReserveResilient

(Walker is assigned to the 913th Airlift Group public affairs office.)