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Fly through it; Okie pilot connects with Tulsa students through battle with cancer

Maj. Donna Mae Williams, a pilot assigned to the 465th Air Refueling Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., throws Styrofoam airplanes with 4th grade students from Kendall-Whittier Elementary School on May 20 in Tulsa, Okla. Williams visited the students after corresponding with them about her battle with cancer and career as a pilot in the Air Force Reserve. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Caleb Wanzer/Released)

Maj. Donna Mae Williams, a pilot assigned to the 465th Air Refueling Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., throws Styrofoam airplanes with 4th grade students from Kendall-Whittier Elementary School on May 20 in Tulsa, Okla. Williams visited the students after corresponding with them about her battle with cancer and career as a pilot in the Air Force Reserve. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Caleb Wanzer/Released)

Maj. Donna Mae Williams, a pilot assigned to the 465th Air Refueling Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., poses for a group photo with 4th grade students from Kendall-Whittier Elementary School on May 20 in Tulsa, Okla. Williams visited the students after corresponding with them about her battle with cancer and career as a pilot in the Air Force Reserve. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Caleb Wanzer/Released)

Maj. Donna Mae Williams, a pilot assigned to the 465th Air Refueling Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., poses for a group photo with 4th grade students from Kendall-Whittier Elementary School on May 20 in Tulsa, Okla. Williams visited the students after corresponding with them about her battle with cancer and career as a pilot in the Air Force Reserve. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Caleb Wanzer/Released)

Maj. Donna Mae Williams, a pilot assigned to the 465th Air Refueling Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., shows fourth-grade students from Kendall-Whittier Elementary School her flight equipment on May 20 in Tulsa, Okla. Williams visited the students after corresponding with them about her battle with cancer and career as a pilot in the Air Force Reserve. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Caleb Wanzer/Released)

Maj. Donna Mae Williams, a pilot assigned to the 465th Air Refueling Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., shows fourth-grade students from Kendall-Whittier Elementary School her flight equipment on May 20 in Tulsa, Okla. Williams visited the students after corresponding with them about her battle with cancer and career as a pilot in the Air Force Reserve. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Caleb Wanzer/Released)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- When Maj. Donna Mae Williams returned home from the hospital after complications from her first round of chemotherapy in late April, she felt less than invincible.

Williams, a pilot assigned to the 465th Refueling Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, found out she had breast cancer while deployed to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, earlier this year.

"I thought it was just a swollen lymph node," she said. "I'm so glad I decided to go to the flight doctor to have it checked out."

After receiving her first round of chemotherapy here, she was forced to spend a weekend in the hospital because of her struggling immune system. When she got home, she noticed a package waiting for her from the 4th grade class at Kendall-Whittier Elementary School in Tulsa.

Inside the package were letters, drawings and pictures from the students encouraging her in her fight against cancer and thanking her for her service. In one letter, a student told her to "fly through it," which has since become her personal motto.

"Through their letters, they gave me inspiration," Williams said. "The package couldn't have come at a better time."

Although she said it took a while for the students to understand she was in the Air Force and not the Army, they were very inspired by what she had accomplished.

"They told me how awesome it was that I was a pilot and had kids," she said. "I think it was a symbiotic thing, because they've supported me in a way that has also inspired me."

Williams traded letters a couple times with the class over the next month and eventually decided to drive over to see them in person. The class's teacher, Stephanie Anderson, said the class exploded with excitement when she told them Williams was coming for a visit.

"Normally they're not that receptive to people," Anderson said. "I can't really describe their reaction. There was just an immediate response from them."

In the days before Williams came to visit, Anderson bought Styrofoam airplanes for the children to decorate and modify while learning about the principles of flight.

"They each got one foot of masking tape and one piece of cardstock paper," she said. "That was the only adaptation they got to use for their plane."

When Williams walked in to the classroom on May 20, she was greeted by a classroom full of excited students. She spent more than an hour with them, answering their questions about everything from how planes fly to whether she plays video games.

Anderson said the student's friendship with Williams has opened their eyes to a whole new realm of possibilities.

"Some of the students are second-generation Americans who don't think they can even join the military," she said. "They're a whole group of students who often get overlooked. Some actually thought they had to pay to be in the military, not that they'd get paid."

Williams said that she has been just as inspired by her young friends as they have. She found that hearing from the students has reminded her how she can continue to have a positive impact in others' lives.

"If I can, in a living example, show them that even in the face of adversity I can have a positive attitude, they can do the same," she said. "When I was in school, I was influenced by someone talking to me about aiming high, so I'm thankful to have an opportunity to do the same thing for them."