Fire chief: My fight with cancer

The journey of acceptance, recovery and paying it forward is retold so that others can live cancer-free lives

By Brian McQueen, NVFC

"You have cancer!"

Those are three words that no one would ever want to hear.

These three words are truly game-changers in the lives of countless firefighters across our country. For my family, my friends and the brotherhood within the fire service community, the news of my cancer diagnosis was taken quite hard.

I share my story in hopes that you will learn and live a cancer-free life.

In October 2013, my wife and I were planning our yearly vacation with friends for 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.

Dr. Taylor thought my enlarged lymph nodes were just the lymph nodes doing their job, fighting off infection from a cold. He prescribed antibiotics to fight the infection that showed up as a lump in the left side of my neck.

While on vacation, my condition improved with the use of the antibiotics. However, a week after I returned so did the enlarged lymph nodes in my neck.

Things didn't seem right
Dr. Taylor 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 and found that things just didn't seem right — 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 see an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist.

My wife and I were concerned, but the "big C" never crossed our minds.

The ENT specialist examined me and requested I have a short-needle biopsy. Following the biopsy, my wife, Sarah, and I met with the doctor two weeks before Christmas. He bluntly stated, "You have B Cell Lymphoma."

That, my friends, was the game changer for us. No one in my family ever had cancer! I never smoked a day in my life!

Second opinion
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? Who do I call for help? Is cancer curable? Do I write my obituary?

So many questions to be answered; our heads were spinning. These were all questions that I know those battling cancer have gone through.

At the fire station, I told some of my closer friends of my diagnosis. My assistant chief shared this information with his wife, who teaches in the elementary school. She in turn shared it with her teacher's assistant, Sue.

Sue's husband had battled cancer and was cancer-free for the last four years. Through emails, texts and lengthy phone calls, Sue convinced Sarah to seek a second opinion, and one from out of town.

We have good medical facilities where we live, but when you buy a Ford, you take it to the Ford dealership for service. With cancer, you go to the best cancer research and treatment centers in the world.

Specialized care
We heeded Sue's message and positive experience and contacted Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York City.

There was no referral needed 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 MSKCC staff was amazing. They were very compassionate, understanding, and thorough with each phone call. Our first visit to Sloan was Jan. 17, where we met with a team of oncologists whom specialized in lymphoma.

Questions started with the usual medical history and stalled on my volunteer firefighter status. This team questioned me for over an hour as to the type of fires that I fought and investigated over my 38-year career as a volunteer firefighter.

What were they saying; my lifelong passion may be killing me?

Fight begins
The oncologists punctuated the meeting by stating that B Cell Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma was the fastest growing cancer in the fire service today. Renown 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 told our family and two close friends that we plan to leave the area to get the best treatment possible. It took some coaxing for me to leave, but the more people I spoke with the more the picture became clearer.

Treatment would be done using Intensified Modulated Radiation Therapy for 20 days (Monday through Friday) in New York City. This therapy consisted of me being locked onto a table wearing an upper body plastic mask for my daily treatments.

The firefighting brotherhood is invaluable during times of need. One week into my treatments, I received a phone call from Chief Brian Healey of the Barneveld (N.Y.) Fire Department asking to meet me for lunch with his Assistant Chief Brian Palmer, who once was a member of my department.

They heard of my cancer issue and where and how long treatment was going to take place. They wanted to help out with the financial demands related to my treatment and living expenses while in New York City.

I met with Chief Healey and stated that thanks to my Whitesboro (N.Y.) Fire Department team and my brother, my personal expenses would be minimal. I did ask that they pay it forward by taking this initiative and make it bigger so we can help other firefighters and ladies auxiliary members fighting cancer and other debilitating diseases.

Helping others
They wanted to sell helmet decals to start up their fundraising and they asked for design ideas. As deputy fire coordinator in my county, my car number is 271, and when faced with cancer, you have to believe.

Thus, they started the Believe 271 Foundation Inc., a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization. Helmet sticker sales began on St. Patrick's Day, while I was still undergoing to treatments. Their goal was to sell 350 stickers; they have sold over 2,500.

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 has brought together the fire services in New York's Oneida and Herkimer counties. Fire departments, ladies auxiliaries, community members, former colleagues and private companies made donations to support our mission.

It was neighbor helping neighbor emotionally and educationally all across both counties as they held various fundraisers to help support the Believe 271 mission of "No one will ever fight alone."

A growing epidemic
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."

This program has been taken through Oneida, Herkimer, and Onondaga counties, educating nearly 300 firefighters about the dangers we face in the world of faster, hotter and more poisonous fires. Our foundation offers this program free.

For about five years, New York state lawmakers have discussed a cancer impairment bill. Our foundation will stand with the state's fire service in working to see this bill passed for the volunteer fire service.

On May 7, I returned to MSKCC for my two-month checkup and PET scan. The news the next day was just what I was waiting for: "You have a clear scan from head to toe."

Ounce of prevention
What came from all of this? Through my research using statistics from NIOSH and the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, I learned the dangers that firefighting can have on our lives if we don't heed these important messages.

From diesel exhaust in our fire stations to the plastics and carbons burning in furniture today, the risks are everywhere. Adhere to these points.

  • Wear a mask and SCBA throughout all firefighting and overhaul.
  • Use air-monitoring devices prior to overhaul and investigations.
  • Early screenings are a must for all firefighters.
  • Annual screenings with the annual physicals should be 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. Apparatus bays are dangerous areas for firefighters.

As apparatus start up, diesel exhaust carbons land on gear placed in our gear lockers. These microscopic particles are transferred to our skin through absorption, thus leading to one area of the firefighter where cancer-causing particles can enter the body.

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 — 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.

I had my six-month checkup in December and will continue to return to MSKCC for future checkups in hopes of remaining cancer free. Together we can fight and win at fighting fires and beating cancer.

About the author

Brian McQueen is a 38-year member of the Whitesboro VFD. He served as their Past Chief and currently serves as their President. He is a Director of the Firemen's Association of the State of New York, NVFC Alternate from New York, Deputy Fire Coordinator for Oneida County in charge of Training, retired school administrator, and current Board Member for Whitesboro Central School District. He and his wife Sarah have one son, Ryan, and daughter-in-law, Erin.

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