Find the good things: Airman survives cancer

Senior Airman Myiah Castillejo, 348th Reconnaissance Squadron, performs squats on Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., March 29, 2015. Castillejo had been stationed at Grand Forks for six months when she was diagnosed with stage three Hodgkin’s lymphoma in January 2014. After chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Castillejo was declared cancer free in January 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Bonnie Grantham/Released)

Senior Airman Myiah Castillejo, 348th Reconnaissance Squadron, performs squats on Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., March 29, 2015. Castillejo had been stationed at Grand Forks for six months when she was diagnosed with stage three Hodgkin’s lymphoma in January 2014. After chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Castillejo was declared cancer free in January 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Bonnie Grantham/Released)

Senior Airman Myiah Castillejo, 348th Reconnaissance Squadron, maintains the health of her heart and lungs after radiation treatment by indoor cycling on Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., March 29, 2015. The radiation was used in conjunction with chemotherapy to treat the Hodgkin’s lymphoma that she was diagnosed with in January 2014. Castillejo was declared cancer free on Jan. 15, 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Bonnie Grantham/Released)

Senior Airman Myiah Castillejo, 348th Reconnaissance Squadron, maintains the health of her heart and lungs after radiation treatment by indoor cycling on Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., March 29, 2015. The radiation was used in conjunction with chemotherapy to treat the Hodgkin’s lymphoma that she was diagnosed with in January 2014. Castillejo was declared cancer free on Jan. 15, 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Bonnie Grantham/Released)

Senior Airman Myiah Castillejo, 348th Reconnaissance Squadron lifts weights at the gym on Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., March 14, 2015. Castillejo has been an avid weight lifter for about four years. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Bonnie Grantham/Released)

Senior Airman Myiah Castillejo, 348th Reconnaissance Squadron lifts weights at the gym on Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., March 14, 2015. Castillejo has been an avid weight lifter for about four years. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Bonnie Grantham/Released)

Senior Airman Myiah Castillejo, 348th Reconnaissance Squadron, was diagnosed with stage three Hodgkin’s lymphoma in January 2014. After spending months in chemotherapy and radiation treatment, she was declared cancer free in January 2015. She now spends her time training for her job and lifting weights at the gym. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Bonnie Grantham/Released)

Senior Airman Myiah Castillejo, 348th Reconnaissance Squadron, was diagnosed with stage three Hodgkin’s lymphoma in January 2014. After spending months in chemotherapy and radiation treatment, she was declared cancer free in January 2015. She now spends her time training for her job and lifting weights at the gym. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Bonnie Grantham/Released)

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- Senior Airman Myiah Castillejo has always been a driven, competitive person who never had a reason to skip going to the gym.

Her active lifestyle began with soccer when she was young, as well as track and field and indoor cycling from elementary through high school.

Unsatisfied with her slight figure, however, she began weight lifting after high school and cut out all cardiovascular exercise in order to gain muscle mass. When she started seeing results, the weight lifting became a way of life for Castillejo, as well as a form of artistic expression.

"Lifting is my art," said Castillejo. "I can't sing; I can't paint; I can't do any of that stuff, but I can use my body as my own self expression and tweak it however I want. I was never trying to make it to a certain weight. I was just trying to sculpt my body and just feel good and be strong."

During this time, Castillejo was paying her way through junior college when she said she started feeling burnt out from school, and even though she loved her hometown of Santa Maria, Calif., she knew that she wasn't meant to stay there her whole life.

"I knew that I didn't want to just stay in one area. I wanted to go places," Castillejo said.

So, she joined the Air Force and reported to basic training in November 2012.
However, during her approximately six-month technical school after basic training, Castillejo remembered she started feeling less motivated and kept getting sick.

"I was tired and walking around with fevers all the time," she said. "It was harder to concentrate, but I didn't really notice because of the way I am; I just keep going. I ignored my symptoms, passing them off as adjusting to the weather or just a cold or not being used to cardio anymore."

Castillejo arrived on Grand Forks AFB in July 2013, and continued fighting through bouts of sickness for an additional six months.

It became harder for Castillejo to continue denying that something was wrong after she noticed her strength and weight declining.

"I started losing weight so fast that I thought the scale was broken," said Castillejo.

In about a week and a half, she lost 20 pounds.

Finally, when she went home for Christmas, Castillejo told her mother about her symptoms and the lump in her neck that wouldn't go away. Her mother convinced her to see a doctor.

When she came back to Grand Forks, she went to the doctor who sent her to have a CT scan performed. In January 2014, doctor's suspicion was confirmed: Castillejo had either leukemia or lymphoma.

While undergoing a battery of tests to narrow down her diagnosis, Castillejo never gave up, and never skipped going to the gym.

"Every day, there was no excuse to skip the gym at all," said Castillejo, "but the more progressive my cancer got ... I did notice that my motivation started dropping. It would take everything to go to the gym, but I would do it."

On January 14, 2014, her dad's birthday, Castillejo said the doctors were able to establish that she had lymphoma.

She was sent to Stanford Hospital and Clinics in Palo Alto, Calif., one of the nation's top hospitals for lymphoma treatment, for a surgical biopsy, and was officially diagnosed with stage three Hodgkin's lymphoma. She started chemotherapy the same day of her diagnosis.

The chemotherapy lasted for six months.

"I was quarantined in my room during my chemo weeks, not able to even get up and go fix myself food because I was so sick," she said. "I don't even feel like 'sick' is a good word to describe how it feels. I feel like they need to invent a new word to describe how chemo feels."

The weeks that Castillejo didn't have chemotherapy, she said she seized the opportunity to eat more solid foods and go on short walks outside. She would even try to do pushups in her room.

Castillejo recalled the doctors hoped to avoid radiation treatment since the cancer was centered directly on her heart and lungs. The breast, heart and lung tissue are very susceptible to damage from the radiation and can develop secondary cancers. Unfortunately, Castillejo's tumors were too bulky for chemotherapy alone, so radiation was a necessity.

This wasn't completely bad news for Castillejo, though.

"In radiation, your immune system [is strong] enough to where they allow you to go to the gym," said Castillejo. "I was rocking my bald head in the gym. I was going almost every single day, the second they told me I could."

Castillejo had radiation treatments five days a week for five weeks. Throughout those five weeks, Castillejo maintained going to the gym every day.

"It's what made me happy; it released all the stress," she said. "Why would I just drop the one thing that has always been a success for me?"

Since Castillejo's treatments took place in California, her mother was able to be by her side the entire time, which is what helped her to keep her chin up, she said.

"If I didn't have my mom during all that, I don't know what would've happened," Castillejo said. "Everything in my world can crumble around me, but if my mom is there, everything's fine. She was going to the gym with me. The Air Force actually gave me that by allowing me to go to Stanford to get treated. They gave me my mom and the best treatment, hands down."

On Jan. 15, 2015, Castillejo was officially declared cancer free.

Now back in Grand Forks once again, her days are filled with training for her job followed by training in the gym, she said. Her routine incorporates cardiovascular exercise once again in order to strengthen her heart and lungs from the treatments.

Castillejo said she also has plans to give back by volunteering at a local cancer center to teach patients how to tie head scarves.

"I'm focusing more on affecting the people around me now," she said. "If I can make somebody else's life better, that's part of why I'm here."

The battle against Hodgkin's lymphoma introduced Castillejo to a new perspective on life that she says she will never forget.

"There's no better motivation than having everything - including your body - taken away from you," she said. "It's eye-opening to be sick, and now that I'm better I don't want to forget what it was like."

Her advice to anyone going through the same experience or any tribulation at all, no matter how small, is simply: "Laugh."

"It does no good to be sour; find the good things," said Castillejo. "Find what makes you laugh and what makes you happy in the day. Every day you wake up, you choose to be happy or you choose to be miserable. You don't have to get through it unscathed; just come out on the other side knowing that you handled it the best you could and learn from what you just faced."