My radiation treatment ended on December 2, Day 88. That day, with Mary Ann's help, I brought gifts and cards to everyone at the hospital who had been treating me; the doctors, the technicians, the nurses, and the staff. They had all assisted me in my time of extreme need and had shown immense kindness and patience. They are all angels of mercy, in my view. It wasn't much, just chocolates, cookies, and other assorted treats, but I wanted each of them to know how much I appreciated their help. Since I still had no voice, it was the only way I could thank them.
As the weeks passed, the effects of the radiation and chemotherapy slowly began to diminish. Within two months, I was off the Oxycodone, much to Mary Ann's relief as she was afraid I might become addicted like other patients we knew. Another month later, I took off my last pain patch. The nausea was slower to dissipate, but finally I was off all the different medications. The burns on my neck began to peel like a severe sunburn, exposing fresh, soft, new skin.
In March, my voice slowly began to come back. It was just a series of squeaks at first, and even now, seven months later, it is still raspy and foreign to me.
Day 203. One of my happiest days ever because I finally got to have my stomach tube removed. I had begun to eat soup and other liquids. I began a regimen which included liquid nutrition from the grocery store.
My energy started to return and I was able to drive and to take unassisted walks, un-assisted. At first, even a few blocks wore me out, and I had to fight my dry mouth by constantly drinking water in small sips. By March, I could walk three miles a day.
I began the long and painstaking process of documenting my illness and my career history to go before my city's firefighter disability board. It was now up to me to prove that my illness was duty-related, and I had found that there is a big difference in benefits between duty-related and non-duty-related determinations.
I called other firefighters who had cancer. I called the International Association of Fire Fighters, and the International Association of Fire Chiefs. I called Seattle Firefighter's Local 27 and Bellevue Firefighter's Local 1904. I started researching the type of cancer I had contracted on the Internet, inquiring everywhere: "What causes throat cancer?" What I found out surprised me.
It turns out that, aside from heavy smoking and heavy drinking (neither one an issue for me), there are at least three major contributing factors to throat cancer: exposure to asbestos; exposure to formaldehyde, and; exposure to arsenic. Further research taught me that each of these carcinogens is readily found in firefighting environments.
Asbestos: over 90 percent of the buildings in a city like Seattle have asbestos within them in some form or another. Asbestos is a well-known and heavily documented carcinogen. In older construction as well as those currently under construction, it has been widely used in electrical wiring and hardware, appliances, plumbing, and many other construction materials. In its undisturbed form, asbestos is stable and safe, but when disturbed it becomes airborne. The particulate matter is so fine and light it actually becomes ambient in the local environment. It is impossible to avoid exposure to asbestos particulates in fire buildings without breathing protection. It will also permeate clothing and turnout gear during exposure, requiring immediate de-contamination after an incident and thorough cleaning prior to re-use.
Formaldehyde: one of the main by-products of combustion when drywall or plasterboard burns. The same applies to other associated products, such as the "mud" used to cover nail holes or create joints in drywall installations. Also, spray paint and other commodities commonly found in aerosol cans produce formaldehyde when they burn. Again, so commonplace in fire buildings that exposure to firefighters should be assumed. Most basements and garages are full of these sources of contamination.
Arsenic: Arsenic? I knew it was a deadly poison, but I didn't know it was carcinogenic until I read about it in my research. I wondered where and how I would've been exposed to a compound such as this in any measurable quantity. What I discovered was that, until it was voluntarily discontinued from use by industry in 2004, over 75 percent of all treated wood in the U. S. was coated with an arsenic solution to prevent moisture damage. How much? One source indicates that there is enough arsenic (27 grams) in a 12-foot-by-2-foot-by-six-inch board to kill 200 people. The arsenic-laden ash, like asbestos, becomes airborne during combustion and is breathed-in by unwary firefighters without serious breathing protection; a paper filter mask does not constitute effective prophylaxis. Further, there is enough arsenic in the ash from treated wood after it burns that a spoonful (27 grams) of this ash, if ingested, can contain a fatal dose. Can you think of a single fire where treated wood products, whether in furniture or construction materials, was not present?