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Air Force veteran Jason Balk was surrounded by family on Friday as he was honored at Moffitt Cancer Center's Veterans Day ceremony. From left: Donna Balk, Jason's mother; Jill Balk, sister; Adrienne Balk, wife; Jason Balk; Jon Balk, brother and donor; and Sarah Balk, sister-in-law.

Jason Balk is a proud soldier. He is a loving husband, devoted father, bonded brother and cherished son. Now, a decade after his time in the military, he adds another badge of honor: cancer survivor. 

On Veterans Day, Moffitt Cancer Center recognized Staff Sgt. Balk and all of those who have served during a flag-raising ceremony at the center’s Magnolia campus. Surrounded by loved ones, Balk shared his story of triumph over acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and his love for his family — both by blood and by service.

Balk served eight years in the U.S. Air Force, from 2004 to 2012. As a combat medic, he took care of his fellow soldiers. He served one tour in Afghanistan, stationed at a small forward operating base in the Paktika province on the border with Pakistan.

“I am very sincere when I say some of the fondest memories came from that deployment. The brotherhood and camaraderie — that is what defines our military,” Balk said. “I would go back and do it a million times again because I love my country and I love my fellow soldiers.”

After Balk retired from the Air Force, he worked as a lab tech at VA Bay Pines Healthcare System. In 2021, he began noticing rashes on his body. He was tired a lot. And as a man who was never sick, he knew something was wrong. In April 2021, at age 36, Balk was diagnosed with AML.

“To say it was very tough to swallow is an understatement,” he said. “Sometimes life hits you. You have to try to hit back.”

Balk began treatment immediately, spending a few days at the VA hospital before being transferred to Moffitt. He completed a 10-day regimen of 24-hour-a-day chemotherapy. He then transitioned to outpatient chemo treatments for the next four months. Although he was feeling better, a biopsy revealed that he needed a bone marrow transplant.

“Acute myelogenous leukemia is first treated with chemotherapy in order to achieve a state of remission,” explained Dr. Michael Nieder, a senior member of Moffitt’s Blood and Marrow Transplant and Cellular Immunotherapy Department who treated Balk. “But most patients with AML would relapse after chemotherapy, and a bone marrow transplant is needed to markedly increase the chance of cure. So for most patients, the successful treatment of AML has two phases: initial chemotherapy followed by a transplant.”

The thought of a transplant was daunting for Balk, but Nieder told him that he had a good chance of finding a donor in his siblings. His sister and two brothers all stepped up to get tested. Ultimately, his brother Jonathan was a match.

On Dec. 10, 2021, Balk received the bone marrow transplant from his brother. “I have not looked back since,” he said. Nearly a year later, he remains in solid remission.

Balk and Nieder credit his family for how well he is doing post-transplant. “Jason has an incredibly supportive wife and family,” Nieder said. “Family support makes a huge difference in how patients fare after transplant. Compliance with the complex post-transplant instructions is difficult for all patients. But when there is strong family support, patients and families do better.”

Balk’s wife, Adrienne, along with his mom and siblings were again at his side at the Moffitt Veterans Day ceremony on Friday. They had seen him follow the Air Force motto — “Aim High … Fly-Fight-Win” — in serving his country. Today, they are proud to see that he is still fighting.

“My story has not ended, and this is not a story of sadness. It is a story of hope,” Balk said. “PTSD and cancer can’t destroy me. No matter what happens, you have got to keep moving forward, one foot in front of the other. Keep fighting!”