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A Veteran and Cancer Survivor Sits Down with Vice President Biden to Stand Up to Cancer

After 23 years in the military, a veteran found work with the company that makes the technology that detected his cancer — now he’s using his experiences to help advise The White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force.

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Johnny Simmons pictured on the left with The Army National Guard in Kuwait, 2004

The oath to defend the U.S. Constitution is one of the most powerful promises a U.S. citizen can make. When the 18.8 million veterans in the U.S. made their pledge to serve, it was clear; fight when and as needed. Yet thousands of veterans who are alive today have or will face a battle they never solemnly swore to partake but will privately vow to defeat.  The fight against cancer.

Each year in the U.S, about 40,000 veterans are diagnosed with cancer. For more than a century, military terms such as ‘war’, ‘survivor’ and ‘battle’ were commonly used to describe a cancer patient and their journey.   Today, however, the way in which cancer is described has changed, in part, because of the Obama administration’s anti-cancer effort, called Cancer Moonshot.

A totally new approach on how to tackle cancer, the Cancer Moonshot initiative led by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden focuses on how to control not cure cancer.  And while military terms describing cancer have fallen by the wayside, the expertise of a few veteran cancer survivors is making its way to the White House.

Johnny Simmons served in the Wisconsin National Guard for 23 years.  In 2004, he was deployed to Iraq.   Many years later, he learned he was routinely exposed to known cancer-causing chemicals.  In 2010, while back in the U.S, Johnny suffered a serious car accident that exacerbated military-related knee and back injuries.  Because of injuries caused by the car accident, the military declared him disabled and permanently discharged him from active duty.

It was a painful time in Johnny’s life, professionally, physically and personally.

While undergoing a MRI for his back injury, a doctor happened to notice a massive tumor on Johnny’s kidney.  “I was rushed to the emergency room,” said Johnny. “10 days later, they planned to take half my kidney but the cancer was bigger than they initially thought and it had spread farther, so they took the entire kidney out. The surgery crushed a nerve and I lost the feeling in my right foot.”

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911 Veteran Golf Outing, September 11,2012

The changes happening in Johnny’s life were massive.  Suddenly dependent on a cane to walk, a daunting task of finding a new career, and continuing his road to cancer recovery, Johnny’s new life was far from the routine military roots he had grown accustomed to for so many years.

He landed multiple job interviews but no employer seemed eager to hire a veteran.   During interviews, he wondered if it was his lack of knowledge around corporate language or the employer’s inability to understand military methods, policies and procedures and how his military experience could translate to the corporate world.

In August 2016, Johnny landed a marketing role at GE Healthcare where for the first time, it seemed as if this company had a fundamental understanding of his military background.   In his new role, Johnny coordinates commercial deals with government health systems.  He is one of 2,200 veterans who work at GE Healthcare and are members of the GE Veteran’s Network, an affinity group dedicated to the support, hiring and professional growth of military veterans.

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Johnny Simmons being recognized at Wounded Warriors event September, 2013

Here, Johnny learned he wasn’t alone as a veteran and cancer survivor.  Because of his experiences, he wants to encourage increased education for veterans about how hazardous exposure to toxic chemicals can impact your health many years later, even after you’ve left active duty when it can be hard to go back to the military and track records.

Johnny will get the chance to speak up and stand up for the rights of fellow veterans.

As part of the Cancer Moonshot program, Vice President Biden will convene a small group of advisors, including Johnny who will meet in Washington D.C. to help shine the light on what government-led programs are needed to better understand and support first responders and members of the military who are impacted by cancer.

Johnny plans to advise the Vice President on the following: “I want to stress there is a lot here that could open the doors to how the government can do a better job,” Johnny said.  “If they know you are in an area where there is exposure to toxic chemicals, it has to be documented.”

Additionally, Johnny will emphasize the importance family and care givers play in helping veterans dig into their past.  “We don’t do this alone.  Had I not had that kind of support in my spouse, I never would have known to go back into the active duty records and push for my history.”

In addition to the Vice President, the task force includes the heads of a number of executive branch departments, agencies, and offices that have responsibility for clinical research, therapy development, regulation of medical products and medical care related to cancer.