Cancer Schmancer… Can We Please Talk About Something Else?

Issue 6 and Volume 12.

This letter to NOZZLEHEAD started out as Dear Billy. The person who wrote me doesn’t normally call me Nozzlehead, at least not in public. Ever since I was “outed” by Bobby (Halton), Erich (Roden), and Diane (Rothschild) when PennWell bought this magazine, I lost the hidden tarp of being Nozzlehead. I was worried that I would not be able to write what I want and how I feel – but that never happened. I continue to enjoy the privilege of being able to say what I feel needs to be said. I just use both names now; kinda one of those cool hipsters who hyphenate their names. Yeah, just like that.

So, this month it’s a letter from a long-time friend who many of you know as well. Chief Ronnie Kanterman of Wilton, Connecticut, is a mutidecade chief who is very involved with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, the Fire Department Instructors Conference International, and much more.

This month, this column is all about Ronnie and how the difference between you and him is perhaps just one fire away. The subject line of his letter was: “I can’t have cancer, I am way too busy”:

That’s exactly what I said to the urologist on the day after Christmas, when he told me that my tests came back positive and I have prostate cancer. Actually, he said I had a “little cancer” to which I asked, “Is that like being a little pregnant?” After we both had a chuckle, he started to drone on about the test results, what they mean, and possible treatments. For the first 30 seconds or so, I was sitting in an echo chamber, the way they portray bad news in the movies.

My gut started to turn, and I wanted to hurl all over the office, my shoes, and the doctor. Good thing it was two hours after breakfast and just before lunch. So, after I came out of the chamber, we chatted for a few more minutes, and he told me that he would send my samples to a genetics lab for further study. This new technology is basically able tell you if the cancer is lying on the beach having a drink or if it’s moving like a rock star.

I left to go back to the firehouse and called Mrs. K. on the way. We were both glad it was early and at Stage 1. Wait a minute! I’m too busy for this! I have things to do, classes to teach, trips to take, vacations to book, fires to go to, and other stuff. Well, brothers and sisters, life goes on “hold” for a while.

In the meantime, I had the honor of presenting a class at the Fire Department Safety Officers Association Conference in Orlando, Florida, in mid-January. So, Mrs. K. and I hopped a jet from New York to Florida and hit it at just the right time. We got an 80°F week in Orlando, visited the Mouse House and the Wizarding Kid with the round glasses at Universal, and did some touring and relaxing.

On Friday of that week, Dr. Doom called during breakfast and said that you-know-what was rocking and rolling like Mick Jagger and the lab report noted that there was a 49 percent shot it was going to run through the rest of my prostate like Sherman marching through Atlanta. With that news, it was time to kick it in high gear, so on my return home I saw the oncology guy, the radiation guy, and the surgeon guy. All said that all the options would work and suck, so it was up to me to “pick my poison.” I then laid it all out to an uncle of mine who is a retired physician, and he agreed that I should go to Dr. Yank-It-Out and remove it. So, March 13 is the big day.

Classes canceled, dates changed, things postponed, but got to get well so I can go back and do all those things I love to do. Too many of us macho “Type As” have put things off, and then it’s too late. In fact, a buddy of mine recently had chest discomfort and went away on a golf weekend only to come back to find himself hospitalized with four stents inserted into his clogged arteries. We’re glad he made it. He’s a great guy and a great fire chief. He took quite a chance, don’t you think?

Why did I just share this personal moment with you via Billy/Nozzlehead? Two reasons:

  1. 1. This was picked up on my annual fire department National Fire Protection Association 1582, Standard on Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments, physical. My department doc sent me to a urology specialist. He saved my life.
  2. 2. While I’ve been supporting the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN) for the past few years, I never thought I’d become a card-carrying member. I called Tony C., the New York representative, and asked him to connect me with a brother who had the same surgery. I got a call in 24 hours and spoke to a brother who told me his story. I felt like I knew him my entire life.

Peer support is key in any crisis. Especially FIREFIGHTER peer support.

Main takeaway: Get checked, get tested, don’t put it off, don’t be a macho dope, and get your blood work done whether the department sends you or not, career or volunteer. Support the FCSN because you never know.

Be well, stay well, be safe,

Ronnie K.

Final comment from Nozzlehead:

So, to answer the headline question: Cancer Schmancer … Can We Please Talk About Something Else? No. Not at all.

We CANNOT talk about something else. CANCER is not an “old firefighter” disease. We are seeing YOUNG firefighters in their 20s and 30s being diagnosed – many surviving, some not surviving. Young, vibrant, gung-ho. Firefighting-loving firefighters. Gone.

So, in plain English from Ronnie and I to you: Don’t breathe that crap* (*soot, dirt, anything you get on you at a fire) and treat that crap when it’s on you or your gear as if it is some real nasty, highly toxic, hazmat stuff that will eat away at you. Because odds are it will.

In addition, here are some “checklist” items for you. None of this is new, but perhaps if we keep this “cancer schmancer” stuff out there enough times for you to actually read it you may actually pay attention to it – and take action.

Love being a firefighter? Good. Do whatever it takes so that your health ALLOWS you to keep doing what you love. The FCSN offers the following suggestions specifically around firefighters:

Chiefs: Make it your department POLICY with consequences for failure to do so. Yeah. Really. Save some of your firefighters from themselves.

Fire officers: You CAN change your little corner of the world, your firehouse, when you are there. Make the below THE WAY you operate. Over time, the members won’t think twice about doing it.

Firefighters: Just do it. Trust us and trust the memories of those who wish they were still alive.

Fire photographers: Wait. What!? Fire photographers? Yeah, fire photographers. Instead of taking photos of firefighters covered in crap, soot, and all the precancer stuff, try this: Carry fire type cleansing wipes in your camera bag and, before taking their picture, have them wipe the crap off. Do them a favor. Help save a life. THEN take their picture with the filthy wipes in the picture, showing what was on them and what YOU did to help the firefighters. They and their family will thank you. I promise.

Of course, you’ve seen this before. Now read it and apply it.

  1. Use a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) from initial attack to finish of overhaul. (Not wearing SCBA in both active and postfire environments is the most dangerous voluntary activity in the fire service today.)
  2. Do gross field decon of personal protective equipment (PPE) to remove as much soot and particulates as possible.
  3. Use carcinogen-removing wipes to remove as much soot as possible from head, neck, jaw, throat, underarms, and your hands while still on the scene.
  4. Change your clothes and wash them immediately after a fire.
  5. Shower thoroughly after a fire.
  6. Clean your PPE, gloves, hood, and helmet immediately after a fire.
  7. Do not take contaminated clothes or PPE home or store it in your personal vehicle.
  8. Decon all applicable fire and support apparatus interiors after fires.
  9. Keep bunker gear out of firehouse living and sleeping quarters.
  10. Stop using tobacco products.
  11. Use sunscreen or sunblock.