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Fly, Fight, Win: Airman takes flight in battle against cancer

Maj. Cindy Piccirillo, 149th Fighter Wing director of inspections, prepares for her flight over Bulverde, Texas, March 15, 2021, during a ride with Col. Raul Rosario, 149th FW commander, in an RV-4 airplane.

Maj. Cindy Piccirillo, 149th Fighter Wing director of inspections, prepares for her flight over Bulverde, Texas, March 15, 2021, during a ride with Col. Raul Rosario, 149th FW commander, in an RV-4 airplane.

Maj. Cindy Piccirillo, 149th Fighter Wing director of inspections, flies over Bulverde, Texas, March 15, 2021, during a ride with Col. Raul Rosario, 149th FW commander, in an RV-4 airplane.

Maj. Cindy Piccirillo, 149th Fighter Wing director of inspections, flies over Bulverde, Texas, March 15, 2021, during a ride with Col. Raul Rosario, 149th FW commander, in an RV-4 airplane.

Maj. Cindy Piccirillo, 149th Fighter Wing director of inspections, flies over Bulverde, Texas, March 15, 2021, during a ride with Col. Raul Rosario, 149th FW commander, in an RV-4 airplane alongside similar aircraft.

Maj. Cindy Piccirillo, 149th Fighter Wing director of inspections, flies over Bulverde, Texas, March 15, 2021, during a ride with Col. Raul Rosario, 149th FW commander, in an RV-4 airplane alongside similar aircraft.

Maj. Cindy Piccirillo, 149th Fighter Wing director of inspections, flies over Bulverde, Texas, March 15, 2021, during a ride with Col. Raul Rosario, 149th FW commander, in an RV-4 airplane alongside similar aircraft.

Maj. Cindy Piccirillo, 149th Fighter Wing director of inspections, flies over Bulverde, Texas, March 15, 2021, during a ride with Col. Raul Rosario, 149th FW commander, in an RV-4 airplane alongside similar aircraft.

Maj. Cindy Piccirillo, 149th Fighter Wing director of inspections, flies over Bulverde, Texas, March 15, 2021, during a ride with Col. Raul Rosario, 149th FW commander, in an RV-4 airplane alongside similar aircraft.

Maj. Cindy Piccirillo, 149th Fighter Wing director of inspections, flies over Bulverde, Texas, March 15, 2021, during a ride with Col. Raul Rosario, 149th FW commander, in an RV-4 airplane alongside similar aircraft.

Maj. Cindy Piccirillo, 149th Fighter Wing director of inspections, lands after her ride with Col. Raul Rosario, 149th FW commander, in an RV-4 airplane over Bulverde, Texas, March 15, 2021.

Maj. Cindy Piccirillo, 149th Fighter Wing director of inspections, lands after her ride with Col. Raul Rosario, 149th FW commander, in an RV-4 airplane over Bulverde, Texas, March 15, 2021.

Maj. Cindy Piccirillo, 149th Fighter Wing director of inspections, discusses her fight to win against cancer after returning from an aircraft ride in RV-4 over Bulverde, Texas, March 15, 2021.

Maj. Cindy Piccirillo, 149th Fighter Wing director of inspections, discusses her fight to win against cancer after returning from an aircraft ride in RV-4 over Bulverde, Texas, March 15, 2021.

BULVERDE, Texas --

“If I could be a bird, I’d be a bird,” Maj. Cindy Piccirillo, 149th Fighter Wing’s director of inspections, said with an easy laugh after returning from her ride in a RV-4, a two-seating, single-engine airplane. “Just feeling free — you forget you have cancer. You forget that you have this disease when you’re up there.”

In other words, OPERATION SUCCESS for the team of Lone Star Gunfighters (her home unit's moniker) who planned the event in the hopes of taking her somewhere above the rainbow of that dreaded C-word. Piccirillo is no stranger to aircraft rides. In 2017, she received a coveted F-16 incentive ride, offered to military members serving in those units for their outstanding service. She handled that high-performance jet with complete composure, never getting sick or nervous, so when the opportunity arose to grant her another flying adventure — especially considering the challenging year she’s had — her fellow Gunfighters could not wait to arrange it. 

“All pilots involved in this formation are former or current Air National Guard members,” Col Raul Rosario, 149th Fighter Wing commander, said. “When I asked them if we could make this happen, none of them hesitated to be part of this flight honoring one of our very best. All of us stand with Cindy and admire her strength, character and resilient spirit. Everyone involved felt blessed to share this event with her. We are in this together – Gunfighter Strong!”

Piccirillo was diagnosed in December of last year with Stage 3C ovarian cancer, but that has not stopped her from her goal to “live life to the fullest.”

“I never once thought I’m gonna die,” she said. “I just thought, how can I live and help.”

Help is exactly what Piccirillo has been busy doing. Despite undergoing chemo therapy and major surgery, she has — in just the few short months since her diagnosis — been a force for advocacy, even telling her story to Texas senators and health legislatures in the hopes of seeking better funding, more clinical research and earlier detection and screening for women with this form of cancer. 

Her passion for better education and awareness stems from her initial misdiagnosis by civilian doctors of kidney stones related to irritable bowel syndrome when her cancer may have been detected in its earlier stages. 

“If you’re having lower abdominal pain or if you’re having different fluctuations in bowel movements or you’re urinating more frequently, it could be misdiagnosed as other things, but all I can say is be persistent with your doctors, especially if you develop ascites (accumulation of fluid in the stomach) — that’s a clear sign of cancer that they did not push for me,” she said. “Be persistent and know the symptoms of ovarian cancer.”

Piccirillo said she is grateful for all the support from not only her friends and relatives but also from her Gunfighter family. One of these Gunfighters is a retired member who has battled ovarian cancer herself and understands firsthand all of its challenges. She has made herself available to Piccirillo in both big and small ways, even recommending therapeutic yoga techniques and best-practice books for diet and nutrition. Piccirillo said it is this type of support that inspires her, and she hopes to give back to others in ways she herself has been fortunate enough to receive.

“Doing the advocacy and writing about it, helping other women find screening with ‘hey this is a possibility if you have these symptoms’ has definitely been therapeutic,” she said. “I wish they had more screening for ovarian cancer and more research, and eventually they’ll get to a point where they do, I hope.”

Her husband Josh, a retired Air Force officer, said the diagnosis took him and the rest of their family by surprise, due in part to his wife’s commitment to diet and fitness. He was understandably taken aback that his wife could seem so healthy one minute and in the next be diagnosed with a life-threatening disease like ovarian cancer. Like his wife, he is now a staunch proponent for better screening such as genetic testing that he said should be a part of all routine lab work since it is fairly inexpensive and would have revealed his wife was 40% more likely to have cancer in her lifetime. 

Despite the delay in detection, he is proud of how his wife has handled this unfortunate situation. 

“She accepted most of her new limitations, set goals, and got right to work,” he said. “Her will and perseverance is admirable. Getting involved in funding of research and development while going through actual treatment is pretty special.” 

He added that their children find her “amazing” and they said that “despite being hurt, she doesn’t let it stop her.” 

Josh also expressed gratitude for the Gunfighters’ genuine commitment to each other and their families. He said their saying of “once a Gunfighter, always a Gunfighter” is more than mere lip service, evidenced by leadership’s willingness to lead from the front by putting action to their words. As examples, he mentioned both the 149th FW commander and the Mission Support Group commander have personally reached out to him and his wife many times, organizing events such as Monday night’s flight over Bulverde or scheduling food deliveries and other helpful check-ins. 

Piccirillo agrees with her husband’s words and said the Gunfighter commitment to each other is sincere. “When they say ‘it’s a Gunfighter family,’ it’s definitely a Gunfighter family,” she said, visibly moved by the sentiment. “Colonel Rosario has been amazing, and everyone in the wing has been so supportive. I couldn’t ask for more. Every time someone calls or checks in on me, it brings me to tears. It’s very humbling, and I couldn’t ask to be a part of a better wing. I love the 149th, and I love the Gunfighters. It just melts my heart.”

After her flight the other night, Piccirillo looked the embodiment of the warrior spirit. Her bald head shone in the dusk light where her once-blonde locks lay. In an act of resistance, she decided to shave them off before chemo got the chance. She sported a teal t-shirt with the words, “I fight like a girl” inscribed boldly across its center. Her bright blue eyes caught the warmth of the waning sun and bore a hopeful beauty bubbling to the surface of her being, matched only by her inspiring optimism. 

“I’m gonna beat this cancer, so I know I have a long life to live, but live your life to the fullest — that’s my best recommendation for everyone out there,” she said. “I try not to think of the negative things that are out there. If something is negative or toxic, I try to push that out of my life. I think positivity is part of your treatment. Any negative thought you have, just try to put it with a positive one. There is family. There are loved ones. They are positives.”