Beating Firefighter Cancer May Be a One-Day Contract

( NVFC )

By Brian F. McQueen, Past FASNY Director

As my wife, Sarah, and I walked through a bookstore one day, I came upon a book by Coach Rick Pitino. It was the cover that struck me as it read: A One-Day Contract.

Having coached high school football and basketball for 12 years, I was in awe of those words for many reasons. Trust me, winning high school games was much easier than winning my battle with cancer!

Cancer has brought me to my knees and left me with the realization that every day is a one-day contract. I use this contract to continue to fight the battle and to raise awareness of firefighter cancer so I can help save others from this terrible disease.

After being diagnosed three years ago with occupational cancer, my mission in life took the road less traveled. When my oncologist told me that my form of cancer – B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – is the fastest growing cancer in the fire service today, I knew I needed to help protect my brother and sister firefighters. Having in the back of my mind the cover from Rick Pitino’s book, I know that every day I put my feet on the ground must be met with success and accomplishments, both personally by focusing on my physical, mental, and emotional health, and in the fire service by educating those firefighters who are most susceptible to the dangers of cancer.

Having the cover from Rick Pitino’s book in the back of my mind, I know that every day I put my feet on the ground must be met with success and accomplishments, both personally by focusing on my physical, mental and emotional health, and in the fire service by educating those firefighters who are most susceptible to the dangers of cancer.

One critical point we all need to remember is that the health and safety choices that we make as first responders impact not only us, but our crew and those we come home to. We must realize that the healthier we are, the better off we will be in beating cancer. And the more diligent we are in protecting ourselves from carcinogens and toxic exposures, the more we lessen our risks of contracting occupational cancer. These steps make us healthier and stronger, and they also enable us to be there for our families and our crew.

Pyramid of Success

It may be hard for a lot of people to comprehend the magnitude of the fire service cancer epidemic. You might have heard the study data that shows firefighters are more likely to get cancer than the rest of the population. You might have seen the ultra-violet images of firefighters who have had carcinogens sitting on their necks and legs prior to their deconning and showers. To some these statistics and photos seem unreal or questionable. To me, they do not.

Yes, I was once that “know-it-all firefighter” who believed that dirty, grimy, salty-looking gear was a badge of courage. In my fire station locker, you could find the dirtiest hood in the station.

I was trying to be “one of the boys,” and didn’t realize that in the long run, these behaviors could be killing me. Washing my hands, taking a shower and cleaning my gear after an incident were not important to me. That is, until I was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 59.While you may think that 59 is old, statistics show that many firefighters are being diagnosed at an earlier age, some in their 20s. Cancer has no limitations – young, old, male, or female, if you don’t follow corrective steps to prevent cancer, you could be one of those sad statistics!

While you may think that 59 is old, statistics show that many firefighters are being diagnosed at an earlier age, some in their 20s. Cancer has no limitations – young, old, male, or female – if you don’t follow corrective steps to prevent cancer, you could be one of those sad statistics!

Fire departments across this nation can take a proactive approach by building cancer prevention education into their training programs. On speaking with fire service leaders throughout the United States during my educational programs, I emphasize that we need to build a foundation in our departments so that cancer prevention is part of our culture.

This can be tough, as many firefighters, especially younger ones, generally believe that they are invincible and that, “Cancer only happens to older people.” This misconception is generally due to lack of education. Implementing a cancer prevention education program in every new firefighter recruit class is crucial to winning the battle with cancer.

Safe and healthy practices must also be incorporated into standard operating procedures (SOPs) and guidelines. Enforcing SOPs that prevent or limit exposures and training all personnel in adherence to these SOPs will ultimately result in a shift in thinking and behaviors. Policies that enforce gear washing after every fire and no gear worn in the living quarters should be immediately created.

There are many other simple measures that should be standard practice as well, such as having wet wipes on each apparatus or in your personal vehicle to quickly wipe contaminates off your face and neck at a fire scene and wearing full PPE and SCBA through overhaul.

Protecting our firefighters from cancer also includes the department providing a physical to firefighters when they join the department as well as continual monitoring of firefighters’ health as they progress throughout their fire service careers. If the department does not provide annual medical evaluations, then the individual needs to alert their healthcare provider to the increased risks they face during their annual physical. This ongoing monitoring is crucial as early diagnosis and treatment can save one’s life.

One piece of the puzzle that strikes many nerves but is a critical step in prevention is that firefighters must quit using tobacco products. Whether smoking or chewing tobacco are the products of choice, you are increasing your chances of limiting your lifetime as a firefighter, husband, wife, father or mother.

Another step that needs to be implemented is the use of a diesel exhaust system in your station. Diesel exhaust is a known carcinogen and is linked directly to several types of cancers. It baffles me when I walk into a fire station and see the diesel exhaust system dangling from the ceiling not even hooked to the apparatus.

If you already have a system, make it a practice that your team hooks up the system every time the apparatus returns to the station. If you don’t have a system, get one. This is a life-saving measure that every department needs.

Coach John Wooden, one of the best college basketball coaches of his time, built his programs on a pyramid of success. We can easily take his pyramid and use it as we design our cancer prevention programs within our departments. As you can see from the graphic above, many of his motivational words can be adapted to our fight for a cancer-free fire service.

The fact is, cancer is a very real threat in our firematic lives. We need to be realistic in our development of actions within our fire departments that will alleviate the risk of cancer to our fire service family.

Jim Kelly, the great quarterback of the Buffalo Bills, once told high school athletes at an All-Star Sports Award Ceremony in Utica, “Make a difference today for someone who’s fighting for their tomorrow.”

If we listen to this message, then we will succeed in beating the issues we face with cancer in the fire service. Our firefighters, young and old, need to take the cancer issue seriously to alleviate any pain and suffering that they, and their families, will go through being diagnosed with occupational cancer.