Eight years ago, at a park in suburban Ohio, Jack Stillman knew in his bones that he had met the love of his life. He was 14 years old.
What Stillman didn’t know was how far life would take the young couple or how many bumps they would experience along the way.
Jack and Alina Stillman started a friendship after that initial meeting that eventually progressed into a romantic relationship. Shortly after, Alina became pregnant with the Stillman’s first son Aiden.
The two were still high school students living with their parents. Stillman was a standout wrestler aiming for a college scholarship, but he said in that moment, he readjusted his focus.
“Once she got pregnant, even being so young, my priorities changed right there,” he said. “Obviously, you have an obligation to take care of your Family and do whatever is necessary for their welfare.”
Stillman eventually dropped out of high school after they banned Alina and Aiden from coming within 500 feet of campus. His parents were upset with the chain of events that had occurred and told him if he was able to raise and take care of a child, then he could take care of himself.
Alina said her Family welcomed him with open arms, and Stillman went to live with them. Now 16, he met the age requirements to work in Ohio and found an entry-level job at a warehouse.
During this time, Alina had also dropped out of high school to care for Aiden. It was important to the couple that they receive their high school diplomas despite their circumstances, so they enrolled in an online high school program.
Eventually, Stillman began working with a contracting company and was making enough money to move his young Family into their own home.
“That was a huge jump for us,” he said.
Walking across the stage at Ohio State University to receive their high school diplomas also felt amazing, the couple said.
“It was great to show people we could do it,” Alina said. “Whatever you put your mind to, you can do it.”
Stillman echoed this positive attitude.
“Being able to juggle schoolwork and to be a parent and work, it was just an incredible feeling.”
At the time of graduation, Alina was pregnant with the couple’s second son.
“Nobody knew,” she said. “After he was born, our Families started to come together more.”
Now a father to two young boys, Stillman decided it was time for him to embark on a career of which his sons could be proud.
“My dad was in the Coast Guard and my uncle was an admiral in the Coast Guard, so my Family had a military background,” Stillman said.
His Family wanted him to follow in their footsteps, but Stillman wanted to create a legacy all his own.
“Ultimately, I just wanted to be a Soldier,” he said. “Being able to put on the uniform was just a great feeling.”
After basic training and a 52-week Advanced Individual Training as a Patriot missile system repairman, the Stillman Family settled in at Fort Bragg.
Stillman said he hit the ground running right off the bat. He received approval to attend Air Assault School as a private first class and was promoted to specialist six months later. He eventually took on more leadership roles within his unit and was chosen to attend the XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg Noncommissioned Officer Academy Basic Leader Course in late summer 2016.
A few days after winning the grueling Iron Warrior competition portion of BLC, Stillman noticed a small lump under his armpit. Although the lump hurt, he wanted to wait to get it checked out so he could finish BLC.
In September, Stillman made history as the first BLC graduate to win all three BLC titles of excellence — Distinguished Honor Graduate, Distinguished Leadership Awardee and Male Iron Warrior.
By this time, the lump had swelled to the size of a golf ball. He was referred to a general surgeon at Womack Army Medical Center after receiving a primary diagnosis from his primary care physician.
“Right away, before performing any tests, she said she thought it was lymphoma,” Stillman said.
Neither he nor Alina had ever heard of the disease and said they still hoped for the best (a benign cyst) when Stillman went into surgery.
A week later, the couple received a call that would upend their lives again. Pathology tests confirmed that Stillman had Anaplastic Large T-Cell Lymphoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer.
“I thought they were joking,” he said. “It just didn’t seem real. You just don’t think something like that is going to happen to you.”
Alina said Stillman’s face went white when he heard the news.
“You don’t understand why (it’s happening),” she said. “He was staring into space and it was like I was staring at a wall talking to him.”
The shock eventually wore off and Stillman readied himself for the intense journey that lay ahead.
“I have other people counting on me,” he said. “We just put on our seat belts and buckled in and really you can’t do anything else other than that — to be positive.”
Doctors performed additional tests to determine the current cancer stage for treatment. Alina said that during the original diagnosis, doctors had told them Stillman was probably at Stage 1 or 2.
Then they received the results of Stillman’s positron emission tomography scan.
“They told us it lit up like a Christmas tree,” Alina said. “Spots everywhere on his body lit up.”
Oncologists diagnosed Stillman as Stage 4, and prescribed an aggressive regimen that required him to receive chemotherapy three days a week every 21 days.
Stillman started chemo immediately, and said the roughest part of the journey was the nausea. He also had high fevers and night sweats, which caused many sleepless nights.
Stillman said his Family has helped him more than he can explain.
“That’s the most important thing — to build each other up in the darkest times. (Families) just give each other that extra push when they’re feeling down.”
The Stillmans said they have also received incredible support from their Army Family, including Jack’s unit, which is currently stationed overseas.
Additionally, the Family is grateful for the prayers they have received from people throughout the world, who are tracking their journey through a Facebook group dedicated to Stillman’s fight.
On Jan. 13, another PET scan, meant to track Stillman’s progress after the fourth round of chemo, showed one spot of possible cancer in the original location under his arm. He finished his last treatment on Feb. 9.
Although there were several scares during or after chemo that required Stillman to be hospitalized, he pushed through. He said having a positive mental attitude helped him get through the process.
“I think that’s 85 percent of the fight, honestly.”
Alina agreed. “You have to keep saying to yourself ‘I’m going to get through this, not ‘Am I going to get through this?’”
Stillman said the experience has changed his perspective on life and given him a new appreciation for everything with which God has blessed him.
“I just took a step back and looked at what I did, what I’ve gone through, and know I can accomplish anything no matter what might be facing me or what types of bumps are in the road.”
(Editor’s Note: Three days after the interview for this article, Stillman was admitted to Womack Army Medical Center for severe pain in his calf. After a biopsy, doctors confirmed that his cancer has relapsed. Stillman will undergo additional treatment at the Duke Cancer Institute in Durham, North Carolina. For updates on his battle, visit the #TeamStillman Fight Against T Cell Lymphoma (Round 2) Facebook page at www.facebook.com/groups/392587681076838/?fref=nf.)