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...

When I reflect on the hundreds of fires I have fought over the decades, and all of the salvage and overhaul situations where I, and others, walked around without breathing protection, it is not surprising that my cancer was a result. At the Rainier Cold Storage fire alone (Seattle, November 13th, 1988), I served as a division commander for over 16 hours. For hour upon hour, I breathed in a huge amounts of smoke (which a representative of the Washington State Council of Firefighters has called a "toxic soup of carcinogens") that night. My eyes watered from the ruptured refrigerant lines full of ammonia as we fought to contain the four-alarm blaze. None of the command officers outside the building wore masks that night, as it would've made it difficult to direct our crews. I recently learned that the incident commander at this incident has himself contracted leukemia.

And we danced...

So far, I'm one of the lucky ones. The Lord has delivered me to a place where, one year later, I appear to be mostly cancer-free.

My battle is just beginning. Can you guess what one of the primary side-effects of radiation treatment is? You guessed it in one: cancer! My doctors tell me that, if secondary tumors do occur, in 80 percent of the cases they will develop within two years of the initial diagnosis, and in 90 percent of these cases they occur within the first three years. So, I count the days. On the other hand, if a patient can make it for five years without a recurrence, they are considered "golden." That means that, while they still may get cancer in the future, they probably won't get the same cancer again.

People like me have to continue to get scanned every month or two to try to identify any secondary or tertiary tumors early on, as when a cancer returns it is often much more aggressive than the original form. My good friend Dave Jacobs, with the Seattle Fire Department, is an example of this. He has advanced esophageal cancer, and it may soon take his life. My heart and my prayers go out to him and his family.

And we danced...

Carcinogens are everywhere in our occupation: research will tell you, for example, that a single, severe exposure to burning creosote smoke may well result in testicular cancer a decade or two later. Remember, the devil is a deceiver. He can make you think you are unaffected and then laugh as your affliction takes you when you and your family least expect it. Dozens of firefighters I know have been stricken since my own diagnosis. One of them, a retired captain of Ladder 1 in downtown Seattle, was feeling "a little off" after a round of golf. He stopped by the doctor's office on his way home and an exam showed his body was riddled with cancer. He was sent straight to the hospital and never got home that day. He died within two weeks of his diagnosis. Farewell, Bob.

I've also learned that a firefighter's medical coverage can vary widely, depending on the city and state in which he or she works. A quick-reference guide is available in the November/December 2008 International Fire Fighter that can help a cancer victim in his/her own research. I've attached a chart with some excerpts from it below. indicating state presumptive disability laws and coverages. Often, in cases such as mine, the victim is obligated to prove that his/her cancer is duty-related. In some states, maladies such as lung-cancer are considered "presumptive," but in many they are not. Also, just because lung cancer is presumptive in any particular state doesn't mean other respiratory cancers are; even though common-sense would seem to dictate that smoke has to enter the lungs through the mouth, throat, and trachea. Throat cancer is not presumptive in Washington State for example, but one glaring bit of proof of duty-relatedness my research uncovered was a case involving three Spokane, WA, firefighters. They were all hired on the same day. They trained together and were even assigned at certain points to the same company. All three of them contracted throat cancer. It would seem hard to imagine that this was not a job-related issue, as one died from his disease, a second was forced to retire, and the third is lucky enough to still be on the job as of this writing.

And we danced, and danced, and danced...

If you do get cancer and have to prepare your own case, you will have to do your own legwork to prove duty-relatedness. But there is plenty of help out there. I've named just a few resources in this article.

State Presumptive Disability Laws: Yes/No Coverages Include
Known carcinogen which is reasonably linked to the disabling cancer
None indicated
Leukemia, pancreatic, prostate, rectal or throat cancer that is caused by contact with a toxic substance.
Exposed to known carcinogen as defined by the IARC.
Cancer affecting the lymphatic, digestive, hematological, urinary, neurological, breast, reproductive, or prostate systems.
Leukemia or pancreatic, prostate, rectal, throat, ovarian, or breast cancer.