By Brian McQueen
“You have cancer!” … the three words that no one would ever want to hear.
These three words are truly game changers in the life of countless firefighters across our country. For my family, my friends and the brotherhood within the fire service in my county, surrounding counties and the state, the news of my cancer diagnosis was taken quite hard by many.
In October 2013, my wife and I were planning our annual one-week vacation with our friends in late November. I had been dealing with cold symptoms for about two months, so my wife finally convinced me to see my general physician, Dr. Toby Taylor.
We thought that the enlarged lymph nodes causing the symptoms were simply organs doing their job … fighting off infection from a cold. Dr. Taylor prescribed antibiotics to fight the infection that showed up as a lump in the left side of my neck.
My condition improved with the use of the antibiotics during vacation. However, a week after my return … so did the enlarged lymph nodes in my neck.
I went back to Dr. Taylor, who prescribed another round of antibiotics. Once again, my condition improved. But, we all know that with any diagnosis, a follow-up was required.
Three weeks after my first visit, the doctor thoroughly examined me, only to find out that things just didn’t seem right and further testing was needed. He sent me for a chest X-ray and blood tests, both of which were negative. He also recommended that I go see an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist. My wife and I were concerned … but the “Big C” never crossed our minds.
The ENT examined me and requested I have a short needle biopsy. When the test results were back shortly before Christmas, my wife, Sarah, and I met with the doctor, who so bluntly stated, “You have B-cell lymphoma!”
That was the game changer for Sarah and me. No one in my family ever had cancer! I never smoked a day in my life! I remember us walking out of the doctor’s office on a cold December day, hand in hand, crying like babies.
What do we do now? Where do we go? How much longer do I have to live? How will we tell my son and his wife? I know all those battling cancer ask these questions.
Who do I call for help? Is cancer curable? Do I write my obituary? So many questions to be answered … our heads were spinning!
At the fire station, I told some of my closer friends about the diagnosis. My assistant chief shared this information with his wife, who in turn shared my diagnosis with her teacher’s assistant, Sue.
Sue’s husband had battled cancer and was four years cancer free.
With no referral needed, we contacted MSKCC by phone and they immediately got us into their system, requesting test results and ordering additional tests to be taken. On Christmas Eve, I underwent a two-hour PET scan, which confirmed my cancer. Would this be my last Christmas?
The staff at MSKCC was very compassionate, understanding and thorough with each phone call. We met with a team of oncologists for the first time January 17, 2014.
Questions started with the usual medical history … and stalled when we reached my volunteer firefighter status.
The team questioned me for more than an hour, asking about the type of fires that I fought and investigated over my 38-year career as a volunteer firefighter. Were they suggesting my lifelong passion may be killing me?
The oncologists punctuated the meeting by stating that B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was the fastest growing cancer in the fire service today. Renowned oncologist Dr. Joachim Yahalom reassured us that he was 95 percent sure he could cure the cancer in my neck.
Sarah and I went home and spoke with our son and daughter-in-law, my brother and his wife, and two close friends, informing them I would be getting the best treatment possible.
It took some coaxing for me to leave home, but the more people I spoke with, the picture became clearer. Treatment would be done using a process known as Intensified Modulated Radiation Therapy for 20 days in New York City. This therapy consisted of me being locked down on a table wearing an upper body plastic mask for my daily treatments.
This is when I began to understand how invaluable the brotherhood can be during times of need.
One week into my treatments, I received a phone call from Chief Brian Healey of the Barneveld Fire Department asking to meet me for lunch with his Assistant Chief Brian Palmer, who once was a member of my department.
They heard about my cancer issue and where and how long treatment was going to take. They wanted to help out with the financial demands in relation to my treatment and living expenses while in New York City.
I met with Chief Healey and stated that thanks to my Whitesboro Fire Department team and my brother Bob, my personal expenses would be minimal.
I did ask them, however, to “pay it forward” by taking on an anti-cancer initiative and making it grow; make it bigger so we can help other firefighters and ladies auxiliary members fighting cancer and other debilitating diseases.
They began fundraising in earnest with an idea to sell helmet decals. As deputy fire coordinator in my county, my car number is 271, so they founded the Believe 271 Foundation Inc., a not-for-profit 501(c) 3 organization.
The sale of the helmet stickers began on St. Patrick’s Day while I was still undergoing to treatments in NYC. Their goal was to sell 350 stickers. To date, they have sold over 2,500 helmet and apparatus stickers!
Once I returned home from my treatments, we formed a 10-member board from representatives of fire and ladies auxiliaries across our county.
There are countless residuals that came from the Believe 271 mission.
Our foundation brings the fire service together to be one from both the Oneida and Herkimer counties. Fire departments, ladies auxiliaries, community members, former colleagues and private companies made donations to support the mission. They believed!
It was a neighbor helping neighbor emotionally and educationally all across both counties as they held various fundraisers to help support the Believe 271 mission: “No One Will Ever Fight Alone.”
To date, the foundation has raised over $55,000 and has paid out in excess of $11,000 to those in need. Upon request from the foundation, I put together a 1.5-hour seminar titled: “Cancer in the Fire Service – A Growing Epidemic.” Fire departments in Oneida, Herkimer and Onondaga counties have hosted the seminar, educating 930 firefighters in 108 departments about the dangers we face in the world of faster, hotter and more poisonous fires.
Our foundation offers this program free to those interested.
We have been cognizant of the cancer impairment bill that has been discussed for four or five years in New York State. Our foundation will stand together with the state’s fire service in hoping that movement can be accomplished and this bill can be passed for the volunteer fire service.
On May 7, I returned to MSKCC for my two-month checkup and PET scan. The news on the 8th was just what I was waiting for. “You have a clear scan from head to toe!”
While in New York, Sarah and I continued to attend mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I was blessed by one of the priests and I lit candles for those battling cancer.
What came from all of this? Through my research using statistics from National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, I became educated about the dangers that firefighting can have on our lives if we don’t heed these important messages.
From diesel exhaust in our fire station’s engine room floor, to the plastics and carbons burning in furniture today, the need to wear a mask and SCBA throughout all firefighting and overhaul is essential. Using air-monitoring devices prior to overhaul and investigations is crucial.
Early screenings are a must for all firefighters. Inclusion of annual screenings with your annual physicals should be budgeted and included without cost to firefighters.
Complacency should not be found anywhere in the fire service. The NIOSH report states: “Cancers of the respiratory, digestive and urinary systems accounted mostly for the higher rates of cancer seen in the study population. The higher rates suggest that firefighters are more likely to develop those cancers.”
Avenues are available for all of us to use. The Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program allows applicants to apply for diesel exhaust systems in their fire stations. Engine room bays can be some of the dangerous areas for firefighters.
As apparatus start up, diesel exhaust carbons land on gear placed in our lockers. These carbons are transferred to our skin through absorption, thus leading to one area of the firefighter where cancer-causing particles can enter the body. You, and your family, depend on your health.
We were always taught that it’s not fun fighting a fire that could have been prevented. Fighting for your life – battling cancer – is not fun at all.
Take the initiative and get screened today. Encourage your elected officials to place diesel exhaust systems in your stations and stay vigilant to changing conditions attacking the fires of today.
Together we can fight and win at fighting fires and beating cancer!
FASNY Director Brian McQueen is a 38-year member of the Whitesboro Volunteer Fire Department. A past chief, he currently serves as president. He is an Nation Volunteer Fire Council alternate for New York State, deputy fire coordinator for Oneida County in charge of training, a retired school administrator and current member of the Whitesboro Central School District Board.