Believe 271: One Firefighter’s Fight with Cancer

( By Paige Roberts )

On Christmas Eve of 2013, the past chief of Whitesboro Fire Department and Deputy Fire Coordinator 271 for Oneida County was told some of the worst news anyone and their family and friends want to hear. This news affected everyone. Brian F. McQueen was diagnosed with cancer, B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma to be exact.

Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a cancer that begins in cells known as lymphocytes, which is a part of your immune system that helps the body fight infections and diseases. The lymph tissue is found throughout the body, so lymphoma can start anywhere. Abnormal lymphocytes accumulate and form masses and if it’s not treated, the cancerous cells crowd out the normal white blood cells that your body needs to prevent and fight infections.

With B-cell lymphoma, many of your side effects can be the same as if you had just a common cold or infection, which in fact was the problem McQueen was facing. His wife, Sarah, was finally able to convince him to go see his general physician after he had cold symptoms for a few months. His physician prescribed a course of antibiotics. The condition showed a little improvement, but only until his lymph nodes started to become enlarged again. McQueen returned to his physician for another round of antibiotics and ended up with the same outcome as the first round. After the second round, he returned to his general physician for a follow-up, they decided that with two unsuccessful rounds of antibiotics something wasn’t right and further testing was going to be needed and also highly recommended.

They began with blood tests, chest X-rays, but the odd thing is they both came back negative. The physician also referred them to an ENT (a doctor who specializes in ears, nose and throat problems) to perform a short needle biopsy. His biopsy results came back just before Christmas and they, in fact, said he had B-cell lymphoma. It’s something no one would have ever expected. At this point, Brian and Sarah were at a loss and had so many questions and thoughts about what was going to happen, what they needed to do now, how they would tell their son Ryan and their daughter-in-law Erin, and how they would tell not only his family, but everyone in the fire service that looks up to him.

McQueen had confided in a close friend at the fire station and shared the information with his wife. She had known a female co-worker that had been in a similar situation, her husband had cancer for four years and is now cancer-free. By speaking through email, texts, and phone calls and they convinced, Sarah McQueen decided that they needed to seek a second opinion on Brian’s diagnosis. They decided to try Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, which they contacted over the phone and MSKCC requested test results and some additional tests to be performed which confirmed the cancer.

On January 17, 2014, Brian and Sarah met with a team of oncologists for the first time. They went over his medical history and they were very interested when he mentioned that he had been a volunteer firefighter for 38 years. The oncologists then began questioning McQueen on the types of fires he has fought and investigated over the years. The team then stated that B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was the fastest growing cancer in the fire service today. After they met with the oncologists at MSKCC, they arrived home and talked with some of their close friends and family to discuss the treatment Brian would be going through and also said it was the best treatment available for him. The treatment he was going to receive is known as Intensified Modulated Radiation Therapy for 20 days in NYC. This type of therapy consisted of McQueen being locked down on a table wearing an upper body plastic mask for his daily treatments.

About a week into his treatments, McQueen received a phone call from Chief Brian Healey and Assistant Chief Brian Palmer from the Barneveld Fire Department. They asked him to meet them for lunch. Healy and Palmer had heard about McQueen’s cancer issues and wanted to help out with financial needs and expenses of having to stay in NYC during the course of the treatment. McQueen told them thanks to his family at the Whitesboro Fire Department and his brother Bob that his person expenses would be minimal. He did however as the two from Barneveld to “pay it forward.”

They indeed wanted to “pay it forward” not only for McQueen, but also to help men and women in volunteer fire departments and lady auxiliaries fighting cancer and even other life-threatening illnesses. In order to do this, they had an idea to sell helmet decals with McQueen’s deputy fire coordinator number, 271. These decals consisted of a green Maltese cross that read “Believe 271.” From there, they founded the Believe 271 Foundation Inc., a not for profit 501 organization. The helmet decals were first sold on St. Patrick’s Day while McQueen was still undergoing his treatments in NYC. Healey and Palmer had a goal to sell 350 stickers, but they’ve sold over 3,000 helmet and apparatus stickers to date.

Once McQueen returned home from NYC, they took this another step forward. A 10-member board of representatives including fire and lady auxiliary members from across the county was formed. This foundation brings together the fire services from departments in Oneida and Herkimer counties. Fire departments, ladies auxiliaries, community members, colleagues and private companies have made donations to support this amazing foundation that has grown to help so many people in need and become better than anyone had imagined.

The board of representatives along with their families work booths and sell merchandise such as decals and clothing to help assist Believe 271’s mission to have no one ever fight cancer alone again. To this day, this organization has helped over 25 firefighters and their families. In addition to helping the ones in need, McQueen put together a 1.5-hour teaching seminar that’s titled “Cancer in the Fire Service – A Growing Epidemic.” Fire departments in Oneida, Herkimer and Onondaga counties have hosted this seminar educating about 300 firefighters about the dangers of their jobs as firefighters with faster, hotter and more poisonous fires.

On May 7, McQueen returned to MSKCC for a two-month checkup and received amazing news. He had a clear scan, no more cancer!

Since his battle with B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he has begun researching statistics from Occupational Safety and Health, along with the Firefighter Cancer Support Network. He has learned the newly discovered dangers that firefighters face every day doing what they love. The toxins are very dangerous for the firefighters, from the diesel on the fire station floors even to the plastics and carbons burning in buildings and furniture. Today the need for firefighters to wear SCBA throughout all firefighting and overhaul is essential to the toxins spreading. Early screenings are a must for all firefighters, along with cleaning their gear so they don’t continue to breathe in toxins that may be on your gear after a call. Although McQueen had to deal with these issues in a way no one would ever want to.

There are many brother and sister firefighters, lady auxiliary and family members of these people that are thankful each and every day for the time and effort McQueen and his Believe 271 family put in order to help raise money for this cause and to help Believe 271. As long as these supporters are here, no one in the fire service will ever have to fight alone again.

Author Paige Roberts is an 11th-grade student at Whitesboro Central High School and junior firefighter with the Holland Patent Hose Co. in Oneida County, New York.