We Danced With The Devil: One Firefighter’s Cancer Chronicles

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...

If you have cancer, stress is not your friend either. There are a number of ways to reduce stress in your day-to-day life, whether it's about money, work, or even your illness itself. Let's face it, some of us get so wound up in heavy traffic we go from zero to road rage the minute someone cuts us off. Trying to minimize stress might mean you have to limit your exposure to some of your friends and even family members if time around them causes stress due to arguments, jealousy, envy, relationship issues, or any number of other problems people have between them. My own approach is to direct as much energy as possible to continuing my recovery process; I'm learning to identify stress inducers and try to reduce them. In some cases, that has meant that I have to keep some people at a slight distance and limit my encounters with them to small, manageable doses. Not out of spite, but simply because I now realize how short life really is. I know that, at some point, Death will come for me again and may enter my door un-hindered the next time (well, maybe next time I'll get the white light at the end of the tunnel that some speak of, which would be a welcome change from the apparition I saw!). In any case, there just isn't much time for this kind of negativity in my life anymore. I still care about all of my family and friends, but I choose to focus instead on making the most of every day that I can share with my wife and son. Cancer patients need to chart their own paths to wellness. What you choose to do is entirely your decision, but I strongly urge you to consider developing a stress-reduction strategy and adding it to your new lifestyle.

To my fellow firefighters, and to future firefighters who may dance with their own particular devil in the future, I offer one more piece of advice. It's simple, but it is important: wear your protective gear! All of it. No, don't try to negotiate or to rationalize alternatives in any way...just wear it. Wear it whenever you enter a hazardous environment, just like everyone (including every legal mandate) tells you to do. Don't doff your breathing protection just because the fire is out, unless you have access to a filter mask which is rated for such an application. You ought to know from your required training (and you know it as well as any expert in the field) that gasses and particulate matter permeate the local environment whenever a fire occurs. They don't subside for hours or even days after an incident. Sometimes, the toxic, carcinogenic products of combustion are actually worse after a fire than they were at the height of combustion. Fire investigators, take heed!

So wear your PPE (personal protective equipment) every time: no cheating, no excuses, and no short-cuts. No kidding. Take it from someone who's been through it, with cancer there are no second chances. You may have gotten a "do-over" on lots of things in life, but this is definitely not going to be one of them. For you, for your family, for anyone you care about, just wear it, okay?

I'm retired from firefighting now and don't ever expect to don the uniform again, but I felt an obligation to write this article in an effort to make a believer out of at least one more firefighter out there. Cancer is a very real threat; it is a modern-day blight that will kill you just as dead as a backdraft or a building collapse would. It just takes longer, and it can hurt a lot more. Don't face devil without being armed with your PPE's, a healthy diet, good physical conditioning, and a clear mind. You can learn from past mistakes made by other people...like me.

MARIO H. TREVIÑO has over 36 years in the fire service recently retired as chief of the Bellevue, WA, Fire Department. Mario served as chief of the San Francisco and Las Vegas Fire Departments and a deputy chief in Seattle. You can contact Mario by e-mail at: flashpoint27@yahoo.com.