Many reasons to be thankful (Gay)
Holidays hold special meaning for gay Marine who survived Iraq — and a battle with testicular cancer
Dec. 22, 2006

Rich Hopkins has battled cancer, survived infantry combat and endured life in Iraq. He’s had a testicle removed, been harassed by fellow military officers who rightly believed him gay and ventured into Baghdad’s dangerous Red Zone.

Hopkins’ life the last 10 years has been a mix of painful, dangerous and tense moments. So when the 31-year-old Virginian says he’s grateful for his health, his safety and his life this holiday season, you know he means it.

“Everything just makes you appreciate your friends and family a little more,” he says. “It just shows us not to take things for granted.”

Hopkins is counting his blessings this year — one in which he overcame testicular cancer and survived five tumultuous weeks in Iraq. He’s also celebrating the new perspective on life his experiences granted him.

“I don’t let the little things bother me anymore. I don’t even let the big things bother me.”

And he’s adamant that men understand the threat testicular cancer poses.

“I don’t think cancer is one of those words that should be hushed. It’s one of those words that should be talked about loudly because everyone has had a family member or a friend who’s had cancer.”

‘Drawing the short straw’

Hopkins’ nine-month battle to overcome cancer started in April 2005.

It was then that Hopkins, who had routinely worked with doctors to carefully monitor calcium deposits in his testicles, realized he was “in more constant pain than I really needed to be.”

Doctors feared cancer, so Hopkins’ right testicle was removed.

“A week later, I went back and learned I had testicular cancer,” he says. “That hit me when I was only 29.”

Doctors told him the surgery likely would put him in the clear. The procedure, which aims to remove all cancerous growth at once, has a 95 percent success rate.

“But lucky me. I kept drawing the short straw.”

An ensuing scan showed Hopkins’ lymph nodes had enlarged — a sign that the cancer remained. So on his 30th birthday, Hopkins began chemotherapy.

The nine-week regimen required Hopkins to be confined to the hospital for several days at a time. His younger partner, Chris Wood, provided what relief he could.

“We have a 10-year difference between the two of us, and I was absolutely amazed with the support and maturity that he was able to give through it. The first week that I was in the hospital, he didn’t even leave. He took the week off work to stay with me there.”

Many of his friends and coworkers also visited to provide encouragement.

“All the positive energy from all my friends always kept me in high spirits. I think if I would have gone through this alone, I would have been a miserable wreck.”

The treatment ended in December 2005. He was then scanned again, only to find the lymph nodes had not shrunk. Doctors promptly removed and tested Hopkins’ lymph nodes. They were benign.

Although he’s been healthy for a full year, doctors expect him to develop cancer again sometime during his life. But Hopkins refuses to let that threat dispirit or inhibit him in any way.

“I just enjoy life more. I mean I could die in a car wreck tomorrow. I don’t let it bother me.”

Five ‘incredible’ weeks

Hopkins was so insistent his life not be curtailed that he volunteered for logistics consultant work in Iraq.

He calls a five-week stint there “incredible” and says seeing Saddam Hussein’s palace, being in the Red Zone twice and learning about the country’s culture were highlights, though danger was never far off. He says U.S. soldiers did the best they could, but snipers plagued even the most secure areas.

“The U.S. can’t do it alone. It needs to be an international force to show that there’s an international interest in rebuilding Iraq.”

And at a time when the U.S. military needs every hand it can get, Hopkins says the government should stop turning away openly gay men and women.

“Everyone should have a chance to serve if they want to. It doesn’t matter when it comes down to war who’s on your right and who’s on your left, so long as their gun is pointed the same way yours is.”

During his time in the Marines, he did what he could as a closeted gay man to foster understanding among his fellow officers. His eight-year commitment to the military ended in 2001, but Hopkins returned for a brief stint before leaving the Marines for good in 2003. Now living openly with his partner in Alexandria, Va., Hopkins says he’s giving thanks this holiday season.

He’s thankful that he survived a bout with cancer. He’s thankful for the honest life he can live. And he’s thankful when other people recognize the blessings they have.

“I think we expect a lot. We should just be grateful for who we are and what we have around us.”