An exceprt from this article appears in the December 2009 issue of Firehouse Magazine.
Editor's Note: Chief Trevino's share a brief story about his good friend Dave Jacobs in this article. Mr. Jacobs lost his battle to cancer before the article could be published.
The story I'd like to share with you is deeply personal. It's also harsh, perhaps even brutal; it's meant to be. That is because I want anyone who reads it to know exactly what I went through so that, perhaps, they can take whatever steps they find possible to avoid a similar fate. Forewarned, as the saying goes, is forearmed.
Like too many cancer victims, I ignored the symptoms at first. From the beginning of the summer of 2008, I had an annoying, low-grade sore throat. After a few weeks, I realized it was not going to bloom into a cold or the flu. It just lingered. After a while, I started to think I may have had tonsillitis, as, unlike a lot of my peers, I still have my tonsils. What a pain it would be, I thought at the time, to go through surgery in the summertime. I'd heard that a tonsillectomy is a lot more complicated for adults than for children, so I went to work every day, simply ignoring the small pain in my throat and hoping it would just go away.
As the weeks passed, I started having trouble swallowing. I often had to try to swallow a mouthful of food several times before it would finally, grudgingly go down. While I thought it was a weird symptom, I continued to assume it had to do with my tonsils. "I'm going to have to see a doctor about this soon," I thought. But the weeks passed and I stayed busy and continued to think I would just go back to normal soon.
Then, one day I tried to take a vitamin pill, but simply couldn't. No matter how I tried to swallow it, or how much water I drank to try to wash it down, the pill would just pop out of my throat and back into my mouth. Frustrated, I finally just threw the pill away. Then, out of curiosity, I stuck my finger down my throat as far as I could without gagging and explored. "Is that extra tissue down there?"
Suddenly, I was nervous. I made an appointment to see my regular doctor the very next day.
"Are you a smoker?" asked my doctor after I had described my symptoms to him. I told him that I wasn't, but reminded him that I had been a firefighter for almost 36 years. He examined me as best he could in his office and told me it was probably nothing, but "just in case" he referred me to an ear, nose, and throat specialist. I went home and tried to make an appointment that same day, but found that just about every orolaryngologist was on vacation, as by now it was mid-August. So, I went down the list of other medical providers I got online from my insurance company until I found a doctor who was in town. I took the soonest appointment I could get, which was still two weeks out.
Like a dark prophesy, an article came out in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer this same week, entitled "Cancer takes a heavy toll on Seattle Firefighters." It described the disproportionate number (over one-third) of Seattle firefighters hired before 1977 who had contracted some form of cancer. I wondered vaguely if I would add to those statistics.
p>For me, day one of my cancer experience will always be the day I was actually diagnosed: September 5, 2008. When the day for my appointment finally arrived, my symptoms had already progressed to the point that I had trouble even swallowing liquids. I was sure, by now, that something was seriously wrong and suspected that I may have cancer. Sure enough, when the specialist put a probe up my nose and snaked it down my throat, I heard him say "Oh!" as though he had found a surprise down there. He had.