BILL MIMIAGA thought he was done fighting when he retired from the Marines. But a surprise diagnosis put him back on the front line of a different kind of war.
Marines are trained to handle just about any threat. But in 2008, when Bill Mimiaga was diagnosed with breast cancer, he was as unprepared as anyone to receive such devastating news. The veteran of the Vietnam and Gulf wars, who retired in 1994 after 31 years in the Marine Corps, underwent two mastectomies and months’ worth of subsequent treatment. Today, he’s a healthy, 67-year-old middle-school teacher in Long Beach, Calif., and husband to wife Christine Petersen, who is a retired Air Force master sergeant. Mimiaga recently reflected on surviving an ambush from breast cancer and his partnership with American Airlines to raise awareness.
An estimated 232,340 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed among women in the U.S. this year. About 2,240 new cases are expected in men.
Source: Susan G. Komen
American Way: How did you discover you had breast cancer?
Bill Mimiaga: I felt a lump. At first, I figured I got it from doing dips, working out. I went to the doctor, and he said, “Go down and get a mammogram.” It was odd for me, and it was odd for the woman who was doing the mammogram to fit me in that machine. It was painful. About 48 hours later, I had my first mastectomy. A year later, I had my second one.
AW: What was your reaction?
BM: I lit up a good cigar and kind of chuckled to myself. I’m not a religious man, but I am spiritual. I believe in God. I said, “You know, God does have a sense of humor.” It is what it is. I went and did chemotherapy for eight months. That was interesting in itself. There’s about 100 ladies in the pink room, and I’m the only man in there. They looked at me odd, and I said, “Look, ladies, I watched Bridges of Madison County three times and cried all three times. I’m one of you now.” I made good friends. I just figured I was one of the lucky ones.
AW: Did your experiences in the military help prepare you in your personal battle against cancer?
BM: After 31 years [of service], it’s always, “can do.” Each day, I get up and say, “It’s either going to be a good day or a great day.” As long as I’m standing and looking down at the grass, hey, I’m blessed.
AW: Your first wife, Arlene, died of cancer in 1986. Do you look back any differently now at what she went through?
BM: I understand the dynamics of how cancer changes you. It changes your thinking. When you’re sick or nauseous or in pain — I didn’t understand it with her. I wish I had better understood it then when she had it. I could have done more.
AW: What have you been doing with American Airlines to support breast-cancer awareness and veterans’ initiatives?
BM: We came together initially in 2006 with the Snowball Express [for which American Airlines is the official airline]. That’s where they fly military widows and their children out for several days’ worth of fun festivities. Since then, we’ve also worked together not only to raise more awareness to get checked for breast cancer but for males to get checked. The two just came together.
AW: You were a drill instructor, and now you’re a middle-school teacher. Which job is tougher?
BM: I still use my drill-instructor methods, which work. I loved the drill field. In a sense, I haven’t left the drill field when I walk into a classroom. When you teach kids who are from dysfunctional families, dysfunctional homes — gangbangers — you have to be just as tough as they are or tougher. And they have to understand that. I don’t want them to love me. But, reluctantly over time, they learn to respect me. They realize I’m there for them. That’s what it’s all about. It’s all about the students.
To learn about American Airlines’ efforts in the fight against breast cancer, in partnership with Susan G. Komen, visit aa.com/joinus