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One of the Lucky Ones: Getting Screened for Cancer

May 15, 2010

Return to May 15
issue of On Scene

IAFC On Scene: May 15, 2010

I’m one of the lucky ones. I pretty much get to do what I love—nearly all the time.

I love being with my family—and I am around them a lot. They’re my absolute top priority and I work hard to walk the talk related to the balance and importance of my family.

I love being a firefighter—I am as gung ho and ate up with this job as I was when I started as a probie in real early 70s. Anyone who knows me will verify that, usually with their eyes rolling. Good—I love that kind of affirmation.

Between my family, my department and the other roles I serve in the fire service (with some food and music in between), I absolutely love what I do. While some chief officers are over going to fires and related emergencies, I am hardly over it.

To me, while everything else we do is absolutely important, it doesn’t get much more basic than when someone needs us for a fire or related emergency—there are no other choices for them than for us to try and make their day a little better.

Few other professions—career or volunteer—have that opportunity, and I have never tired of it because of the incredible gratification I have received from it for the past almost 40 years.

As part of it, especially at this stage in my career, I love the training and the chance to help guide some of the young boys and girls just starting out. I love it. At some point, I’ll stop—hopefully by my own choice—but until then, I’m out the door when that tone hits.

Few other people get to do what we do. I have never forgotten that and try hard to pass on the good stuff—especially the appreciation and the enthusiasm for the great opportunity of being a firefighter.

I’m also one of the lucky ones because I’m alive. While I’ve had a few pretty serious fire-related close calls in my career, I’m not talking about fires, rescues, EMS responses or anything like that. I’m talking about the medical stuff. The you stuff.

So many of our good friends—active IAFC members, from Don Manno to John Eversole and so many more—have gone before us but still had so much to offer. While they would have been the first to remind us how lucky they were, I still miss them. But this article is still not about them. Not fires. Not medical or heart attack issues.

Nope, this is all about cancer and about getting screened—specifically, getting screened for colon and colorectal cancer. A big issue in the fire service.

Read on; lean over; I promise this won’t hurt. Really.

I finally did what should be considered the right thing for my family and me: I scheduled and went for a colonoscopy—I did that two years ago. Two years ago, at age 53. I was already a few years late, for the usual lame reasons we all use. My delay was even longer than for most, because I have an unknown family history as I was adopted—even more reason for me personally not to delay.

But I figured if I (and we) preach this at IAFC activities and especially on IAFC Safety, Health and Survival business, I need to practice what we preach.

Essentially, the worries most of us have, and why we avoid going, include that we don’t want to drink that gross stuff, the stuff that makes us understand what it must be like to be Niagara Falls for a day, the day before. We don’t want anyone going in and down what is generally considered a one-way street.

And we’re worried about what they may find. (Great opportunity for humor here but we’ll let it pass—no, wait, I have to: “what they may find down there, such as a city managers shoe.” OK. I’m done.)

Fire chief—want to lead? Once again, you have the opportunity. Set the example and get screened.

What You Should Expect When You Get Screened

The day before the screening – There are different things you can drink. You may get a prescription powder to mix into a big jug and drink. I was lucky—my doctor doesn’t use that.

I picked up some over-the-counter stuff he told me to get, poured it into 7-Up, drank one at 5 pm and one at 9 pm; that was it. I also couldn’t eat that day, but could have jello, chicken broth, etc. I took fire-line tape and cordoned off the area between my living room chair and the bathroom, for safety’s sake. Just one tip: do not respond to fire calls after you drink the stuff. Trust me.

The day of the screening – I went to “Colonoscopies R Us” the next morning. They had me put my gown on and lay down and they asked me the usual questions: What do I get for my IAFC dues? How do you eat with that mustache? Aren’t you too old to go to fires?Why do you think you’re always right? Normal questions like that.

Then they took my vitals. A few minutes later, they wheeled me in and I hung out there for a few minutes while listening to Jimmy Buffet music—in a gown made of tissue paper. I never realized how attractive I looked in a paper gown. While I enjoyed the music, they started an IV.

Then, a man who spent years in medical school so he could spend a life time probing our, well, you know, came in, wearing a miners helmet, complete with head-light. I asked how long it would take and he said, “We’re done.” What?!

No kidding. The IV ran, my brain and time were put on pause from the drug they used and I missed about 30 minutes of my life, like a hold button on a remote. That was it. Done. Finished. Highway reopened. I got up and walked out to my waiting daughter who drove me home.

That simple, Chief. That simple.

The grand finale – What did they find? They found one small polyp that was removed painlessly during the procedure (remember, I didn’t even know they had started) and it turned out to be noncancerous. I have to go back for another routine colonoscopy in three years.

Why Am I Sharing These Intimate Details?

Because, like so much else we are exposed to as firefighters, fire officers and fire chiefs, colon cancer is one of the most common and yet most preventable.

I have lost several very good friends to cancer over the last few years. Odds are (hopefully) you don’t know firefighters who have been killed in the line of duty. However, you probably do know a firefighter who has had or now has cancer. It’s estimated that 1,000 active-duty firefighters die each year from cancer. And like many LODDs, so many of the cancer-related deaths were preventable.

Of course, many situations involving cancer danger may not be preventable, but many are. On the fireground, be perfectly clear that as chief you expect all your members to wear full PPE, to never allow any of the soot to get on themselves—preventing absorption of carcinogens through the skin as well as from dirty hoods—and to not breathe in that crap.

If you’re 50 or over or if your family history suggests you do it sooner, talk to your doctor and schedule your colonoscopy, along with a PSA and other applicable screenings. Then show up for the appointment.

Colorectal cancer is one of several cancers associated with firefighters on varying levels of increased risk. More than 90f people diagnosed with colon cancer are 50. Research indicates that by age 50, one in four of us has polyps—colon cancer precursors—as I did.

So getting screened is an excellent colon cancer prevention method.

The Real Reasons to Go for Your Colonoscopy

Look at the pictures on your desk, in your helmet, in your locker and in your wallet. Not getting screened is selfishness. This isn’t all about you—it’s also about the people counting on you to be there. Who is better qualified than you to walk your daughter down the aisle? Who is more qualified than you to take your grandchild out and teach him or her how to ride a bike?

Those are just a few reasons why. Be one of the lucky ones who either gets screened and is fine or who gets screened and finds a problem—but finds it early enough.

So enough already. Go get your colonoscopy scheduled.

After all, if you love what you do and you love your family and friends, why wouldn’t you want to do that for as long as possible?
Still not sure? Look at the pictures on your desk and in your wallet.

You’re already lucky—now extend that for as long as possible.

Billy Goldfeder, EFO, is the chair of the IAFC’s Safety, Health and Survival Section and deputy fire chief of the Loveland-Symmes (Ohio) Fire Department.