We Danced With the Devil: One Firefighter's Cancer Chronicles

This story is deeply personal. It's also harsh, perhaps even brutal. That's because I want you to know exactly what I went through so that, perhaps, you can avoid a similar fate. Forewarned, as the saying goes, is forearmed.


This story is deeply personal. It's also harsh, perhaps even brutal. That's because I want you to know exactly what I went through so that, perhaps, you can avoid a similar fate. Forewarned, as the saying goes, is forearmed. From the beginning of the summer of 2008, I had an annoying, low-grade...


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This story is deeply personal. It's also harsh, perhaps even brutal. That's because I want you to know exactly what I went through so that, perhaps, you can avoid a similar fate. Forewarned, as the saying goes, is forearmed.

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. 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, to go through surgery in the summertime. I'd heard that a tonsillectomy is more complicated for adults than for children, so I went to work every day, 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 day, but found that just about every otolaryngologist was on vacation. 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 first appointment I could get, which was still two weeks out.

Like a dark prophesy, an article came out in the Seattle Post Intelligencer that week, titled "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.

For me, Day One of my cancer experience will always be the day I was actually diagnosed: Sept. 5, 2008. When the day for my appointment finally arrived, my symptoms had 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.

"You have a mass in your throat," he said after examining me, "It looks malignant. And aggressive." He looked me right in the eye, making sure I understood the gravity of his comments. My wife, Mary Ann, and I sat in stunned silence as he informed us of what needed to be done to complete his diagnosis. As he talked on, my mind took me back to all of those times when I entered burning buildings without breathing protection, and all of the times I worked for hours, unprotected, doing salvage and overhaul in the smoldering remains of fires. Like my peers, I had felt bulletproof in those days. I had always thought that cancer was something that happened to other people, not me. Now, for the first time, I was actually afraid for my life.

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