When Alina and Jack Stillman first met as young teenagers, the odds were stacked against them.
The couple connected about eight years ago on social media – and it was love at first sight.
But not everyone felt they would live happily ever after.
“It was like the world was against us,” Alina, now 24, recalls. “Then I ended up getting pregnant, and all hell broke loose.”
Both dropped out of high school to pursue online diplomas so they could concentrate on their upcoming responsibilities.
On April 28, 2011, their son, Aiden, was born.
Their parents were against their union.
Life was extremely difficult for the young family of three – but they persevered.
Eventually, Alina got pregnant again, and that’s when it became apparent that they were seriously committed to each other.
Their second son, Jackson, was born on Nov. 29, 2012. By this time, the family had moved into a small home in Aurora, Ohio, and Jack was working as a painter while Alina stayed home with the boys.
It wasn’t easy, by any means.
“Life was really rough,” Alina recalls. “We were teens trying to raise kids ourselves. And we had relationship issues, insecurities, and some family stuff because of the past.”
One day, while discussing the future, Jack mentioned an interest in joining the military. Alina supported the decision, and after talking to an Army recruiter, Jack was hooked. He shipped off to basic training in January 2014.
Just before he left, the couple got married.
In April 2014, Jack graduated from basic training. The family settled in Oklahoma before relocating to Fayetteville, North Carolina, a location on Jack’s “dream list.”
He quickly excelled.
History was made at the Basic Leader Course when he earned both the Leadership Award and the Iron Warrior Award, distinctions that soldiers compete for during each iteration. He also earned the Distinguished Honor Graduate award.
Jack attributed his success to the time he spent increasing his own fitness.
“Being physically fit sets the foundation to be mentally and spiritually fit as well,” he said. “As long as you’re comfortable with yourself, then everything else falls into place: having a positive mindset, always being determined, and not giving up.”
Everyone was elated, and they were looking forward to finding a stable new “normal.”
But all too quickly, a dream-come-true became an unimaginable nightmare.
Shortly after making history for his honors, Jack was preparing for deployment. He had just completed an Iron Warrior Challenge.
“Jack was one of the healthiest people I know,” Alina says.
But then, he found a lump under his left arm.
“At first, he kind of shrugged it off, thinking it was a knot from exercising,” Alina recalls. “But I worried because the ‘C’ word hits you right away. A few days later, it was bothering him, so he went to the ER.”
By then, Jack had noticed a second lump forming, and the first had grown from dime-sized to bigger than a golf ball.
“The ER doctors looked at him and had no idea, so they told us to go to our primary care physician,” Alina explains. “Our doctor referred him to a surgeon, who said it could be lymphoma. But we wouldn’t know for sure until surgery.”
The next few days, Alina says, felt like forever. And by the look on the surgeon’s face after the procedure, she knew the news wasn’t good.
“The doctor said that surgery went well and that they removed one of the lymph nodes that had grown so big, and that it was lymphoma,” she says. “Jack looked at me and said, ‘Babe, I’m so scared.’ It was hard to hear because I was trying to keep it together for him. And it’s hard for him to see me upset. But after that, he just tried to maintain a good attitude – ‘I’m gonna get through this.’ ”
Jack’s surgery took place on Sept. 29, 2016. After that, it was a waiting game for pathology results.
“On Oct. 6,” Alina recalls, “we were about to sit down for dinner with the kids, and Jack’s cell phone rang. The first thing we heard was, ‘We’re sorry to tell you this over the phone - we’d rather consult face to face, but we need to get moving quickly.’ Jack’s face went white, and he dropped the phone.”
He was diagnosed with anaplastic large T-cell lymphoma, a really rare and aggressive type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
The next morning, Jack and Alina were at the Army hospital. At first, doctors thought it was stage 1 or 2 and told him to prepare for chemotherapy every 21 days.
But a PET scan revealed Jack’s condition to be far worse. The cancer had progressed to stage 4b.
“He started getting all the symptoms,” Alina says. “Night sweats, unbearable pain under his arm. He would get up at night and pace around, asking ‘why is this happening?’ ”
The PET scan showed cancer throughout Jack’s entire body, including his spleen, femur, spine and bones.
“The scan lit up like a Christmas tree,” Alina says. “The plan changed to three days of chemo every 21 days. He lost his eyebrows, his hair, and he gets so sick.”
Their 5-year-old son started asking questions about the changes to his father’s appearance.
“Jack told him that there are some bugs in his stomach, and the doctor is helping him to get better,” Alina explains.
A PET scan on Jan. 13 showed a lot of improvement, but there’s still a “hot spot” of cancer activity where it initially began.
Jack’s finished six rounds of chemotherapy and will have another PET scan in April to assess his condition.
For those suffering from this type of cancer, there is a 50-60 percent five-year survival rate.
“Doctors said that if he had waited any longer to come in, he would have been in ICU,” Alina says. “He was getting lymph nodes on the back of his head before starting chemo because of how fast it was spreading.”
Jack’s tired – his body has been through more than most could handle – but he’s optimistic, and looks forward to getting good news next month.
“We rely on each other,” Alina says. “Our church has been so great, so supportive, and the entire church prays for him. It was amazing to see people we hardly know come together to pray for him.”
Alina hopes to raise awareness, urging people to listen to their bodies when something seems off.
“As soon as you notice something,” she says, “go to the doctor immediately. It’s worse to sit on something and question yourself. In September, Jack thought nothing of it. If he hadn’t gotten checked out … who knows what could have happened?”
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