Beyond the finish line: a cancer survivor’s story

With over 800,000 spectators looking on, 16,000 runners alongside him, and 40 kilometers of European countryside to conquer, Gregory Cheek, a Department of the Army civilian at U.S. European Command, had no one to impress but himself, as he ran in the 27th annual Haspa Hamburg Marathon this past April.

With each stride, Cheek “stepped on cancer,” a phrase he used to describe his fight against stage three throat cancer.

And yet, despite the bravado that the phrase implies, at around the 35 kilometer mark, Cheek was flooded with emotion. “I was so choked up because of how close I was to finishing yet another challenge in my life,” Cheek said.

At the time of his diagnosis, Cheek worked at the Army’s Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The day his life changed is etched in his mind. 

“It was the tenth of May, 2010, 9:18 a.m. The doctor walked into the room with ‘that look’ on his face.

“After he broke the news to me, my only response was ‘What do I have to do?’” Cheek recalled. While many people who experience a life-altering event must work through feelings of shock, anger and denial, Cheek found clarity.

“The second I walked out of that office, everything in my life gained so much more appreciation than what [I] already possessed,” he said.

Faced with his own mortality, Cheek, a native of Sacramento, Calif., and a retired Army officer, elected to take a closer look at what was most important in his life.

“Wanting to watch my children grow and become successful, going through with self-made promises and goals, and living life to its fullest until my time comes … that’s my motivation,” Cheek said. He would use everything within himself to get through the abrupt, blind-sided attack on his life. It wasn’t easy.

“Eight weeks of radiation was very difficult. Treatment was painful,” Cheek said.

To get through the radiation treatments, his doctors recommended that he find a “happy place.”

For Cheek, that meant focusing on getting well and reminiscing about the years he spent in Stuttgart as a second lieutenant in the early 90s.

After the radiation therapy, he was inspired to return to Stuttgart and started job hunting. A year later, in August 2011, with the blessings of his doctors, he reported for work at EUCOM’s J5 directorate.

For those who know him, this willful determination was “classic Cheek.”

“He attacks every day with a positive attitude and a youthful vigor many of us wish we had,” said Col. Tony Layton, Cheek’s former boss at the Combined Arms Center. “Greg Cheek’s ability to attack his cancer with an unending barrage of positive energy was what allowed him to win his fight.”

But Cheek will be the first to admit that there were some low points.

At times he said he found himself wondering, “Why me?”

“But after realizing who I was as an individual and the faith I had in God, it quickly turned into ‘Why not me?’

“Bottom line is it’s in God’s hands. I [went] into treatment sessions highly motivated, faithfully charged, ready to fight more and more,” he said.

As Cheek focused on staying physically fit, he turned to running.

During his time in the Army, Cheek ran, but he said he was never a fan. However, with his thyroid gland affected by the radiation therapy, he needed some sort of exercise regime to combat weight gain. In October 2011, Cheek completed a half marathon in Munich. Months later, he completed the full marathon in Hamburg.

“Before running the Hamburg marathon, I’d run up to 40 miles a week; running, biking, and hitting the gym to train for that specific race. I continue to run because it’s become something I love,” he said. 

 Cheek’s enduring spirit has not only helped himself, but has also impacted many of his colleagues and close friends in more ways than one.

“His stories of hope and inspiration after his bout with cancer have been amazing,” said Steven Owsley, an adaptive planning specialist for EUCOM.

“It allows us all to take a step back and realize that no matter what you’ve gone through, somebody probably has it worse than what you do.

“When you talk to him about his situation, and look into his eyes, you really see someone who has a renewed vigor for life and understands that you shouldn’t take anything for granted,” Owsley said. Cheek said that anyone who is battling cancer needs to keep a positive attitude and stay focused.

“You have to give yourself goals and dreams … something to accomplish, Cheek said.” If not, he added, “Things will begin to fall apart.”

He points to his own life. “There’s been so much I’ve been able to accomplish and enjoy with a whole new outlook on life,” he said.

Editor’s Note: Greg Cheek just celebrated the two year mark of being “cancer free.” He said he will continue with follow-up care until he reaches the coveted five year cancer-free mark.