Sunday, October 28, 2012

When Firefighter Heroes Need Help

We all know the dangers firefighters face, but did you know that they also have a markedly higher risk of developing cancer? According to one source, their risk is up to 100% higher than that of the general population. I learned this stunning fact when researching ONE FINE FIREMAN. Around the same time, I also met Fire Chief Joe Nestor of the real San Gabriel fire department and learned that he is a cancer survivor and dedicated member of a group called the Firefighters Cancer Support Network, a peer support network for firefighters and their families. As a gesture of support for the firefighting community – and in gratitude for all the charity work they do -- I intend to donate a portion of my royalties from every copy of ONE FINE FIREMAN, for the lifetime of the book, to the network.

So what's the group all about? Chief Nestor was gracious enough to answer some questions. 

First of all, thanks so much for taking the time to talk about this wonderful organization. My first question would be, why are firefighters at such high risk of developing cancer?
Firefighters are exposed to many cancer causing materials because of the nature of the job.  They are exposed to smoke and the products of combustion, along with hazardous chemicals that have spilled or been improperly mixed. Cancer can take years or decades to develop after just one exposure.  When I started in the fire service more than 40 years ago, breathing apparatus was not worn at all times during the fire, and almost never after the fire was out, when exposure can be at its worst.  Picture the World Trade Center, when firefighters were working around the smoking rubble without breathing apparatus.  That type of smoke can be the most toxic.  Over the years personal protective equipment (PPE) have improved, and firefighters have gotten much better at always wearing their breathing apparatus (masks).  As firefighters get better at wearing breathing apparatus at all times when in a smoky or chemical environment, we should see incidents of cancer go down. 
Do firefighters have any particular challenges when facing cancer? For instance, I would wonder if it’s difficult to ask for help when you’re used to relying on your physical strength and skill. Is that the case, or are there other challenges?
As you know, firefighters take pride in being strong, in body, mind, and soul.  You like to think that you are above getting cancer. It is very difficult for some firefighters to accept that they are not invincible.  Firefighters are used to taking care of people, not being taken care of.  It can be very difficult and isolating when a firefighter gets diagnosed with cancer.  The other challenge is getting back to the job of firefighting.  The number 1 goal is to get well, and number 2 is to get back to work.  I haven’t talked to a firefighter yet that didn’t want those 2 things.  And getting back to work is so important, because we want to leave the job on our terms not on cancer’s terms.  There are times when someone just can’t come back, where getting well has to be enough.  We let those folks know that they are still part of the family, and will always have our support.
What was the original inspiration for the founding of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network
The Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN) was founded by Los Angeles County Firefighter/Paramedic Mike Dubron in 2005.  He was given a very poor prognosis when he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, however, he survived and his prognosis was changed to very good.  After his recovery, he realized that there was nowhere for a firefighter to turn, other than traditional organizations, when they are diagnosed with cancer.  As he puts it, no one knows firefighters like firefighters.  He also found that firefighters were much more prone to having cancer in their lifetime than the general population.  He founded the Firefighter Cancer Support Network to provide comfort, strength, and hope through our own experiences as firefighters in dealing with the devastating effects of cancer.
Does the special bond firefighters develop in the firehouse help them when they’re diagnosed with cancer?
Yes, that is the cornerstone of the organization.  When a firefighter is first diagnosed, we encourage them to contact FCSN.  Either that day or the next day, a large box is delivered to them.  The box has resource materials to help them and their families get educated about cancer.  We also get them connected to a “mentor”.  A mentor is another firefighter that has also been diagnosed with their type of cancer, or a closely related cancer.  The mentor initially provides comfort and connection, which is so important in those first few days.  The mentor also can help get them to appointments and be present for doctors meetings to help ask questions and take notes.  Each person is unique.  Some firefighters get a cancer diagnosis, and don’t mind telling everyone.  Some really want their privacy.  It is up to the mentor to respect the wishes of the individual.  A mentor is there to provide comfort and support, not to take over someone’s treatment and approach to their cancer diagnosis.

The dream of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network would be for it to become as relevant as the Breast Cancer Awareness effort has become.  I am amazed at what the folks involved in Breast Cancer Awareness have done.  I know that when a woman, or a man, are diagnosed with breast cancer, they know that they do not have to feel isolated, that there are people and organizations there for them.  They know that all they have to do is reach out and someone will be there.  That is what I want to see for the Firefighter Cancer Support Network.
You also work with family members of firefighters. What’s the most important thing people can do to support a loved one with cancer?
First and foremost to provide comfort and support.  Second, this is a battle.  When you hear that someone is “battling cancer”, that is exactly what they need to do.  They are in a fight for their lives.  You need to be up for the challenge, and help them in the battle.  You are one of their soldiers!  Get into the fight with them.  Do research.  Take them to appointments.  Be a second set of ears in the doctor’s office.  Don’t let them get isolated.  Challenge them to fight harder if they need to.  Help them to feel as normal as possible.  Never give up hope.  If they are firefighters, or part of a firefighter family, encourage them to contact the Firefighter Cancer Support Network.   
As a cancer survivor yourself, what would you say to someone facing a cancer diagnosis? What have you learned from the experience of fighting cancer?
First, I would tell them that I am an 11 year survivor.  Cancer is not a death sentence.  Next, you are still the same person.  Cancer does not define you, it is just a small part of you.  I would tell them their life is going to be different, and not necessarily for the worse.  I believe I am a better person because I have battled cancer.  For me, and this is not for everyone, I would have talked about it more.  It was just kind of my wife and I initially from 2001-2005.  In 2005 when I got involved with the Network, I talked about it to anyone that wanted to listen.  That really helped me.

My story is a little different.  When I was diagnosed in November 2001 with Bladder Cancer, I went in for surgery 2 days later.  In 3 weeks I was back at work as a Battalion Chief.  At the time I was with Pasadena Fire.  I was also at the beginning stages of competing for the Fire Chief job in San Gabriel.  I had my second surgery in February 2002, and also started chemo.  I only took 4 days off for that one.  I told my doctor at the time that I was competing for a Fire Chief’s job, and asked him if I should continue to pursue that.  This is where having the right doctors and people around you is so important.  He said, “What do you want to do?  Do what you want to do.  Don’t worry.  Life is too short to worry.  Do what you want, you are going to be fine.  We are going to take good care of you.”  So I continued with the process and became the Fire Chief for the City of San Gabriel.  I was cancer free until 2005, when it came back in a mild form.  One more surgery, and this time chemo with Interferon.  Cancer free ever since, 7 years and counting.   
That’s great news! Is there anything patients who are not connected with the firefighting community can learn from how your organization works? 
Yes, go to the website.  It has information and videos explaining how the Network works.  If you want to read about a firefighter’s experience, go to testimonials.  They will talk about their experience with their particular type of cancer.  At the end of each testimonial is an e-mail for the individual.  Send that individual an e-mail, and I know you will hear back.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about the network?
The biggest challenge for us is getting the word out.  Most firefighters don’t even know that the Network exists, and is available to them.  Many times I go to funerals for firefighters, where the firefighter has died of cancer.  If I wasn’t aware of their cancer, I always wonder what their last few weeks and months were like.  Did they get everything that they needed?  Did they have people to talk to?  Did they get all the treatment they needed?  Did they get to the right doctors?  How about the families, are they getting everything they need (I will always ask)?

Firefighters are amazing, they will rally around the firefighter with cancer every time.  But many times it is just the department that the firefighter, or his/her family member, is part of.  My hope is that in the future, when a firefighter is diagnosed with cancer, one of the first calls will be to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network.  

Chief Nestor, thank you so much for sharing your story, thoughts and inspiration.

If you’d like to know more about the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, click here

ONE FINE FIREMAN will be out on November 13. Click the "Books" page for more.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Adventures in Meditating

 If I have a superpower, it’s the ability to make anything more complicated that it needs to be. (Which, if you have a choice, is not one of the better superpowers.) Take meditating. It sounds simple enough, right? Basically, you sit. You can try to clear your mind, or focus on your breathing, or visualize something, but the essence is simply to stay in one place and … well, be. 

Yeah. Easier said than done. My friend Daisy and I have both had an ongoing interest in meditation, though actually doing it is another matter. Recently we got together at a café and had the brilliant idea to give it a shot, right there in the park across the street. We found ourselves a sunlit bench and settled in.

Simple, right? Of course not! First, we decided we needed an app for our meditation session. We both hauled out our iPhones and began scrolling through the app store looking for free meditation apps. Something with a timer, or maybe a bell to start us off. We spent the next fifteen minutes searching instead of meditating, which of course struck us as hilarious.

So, because of the times we’re living in, I had to Tweet about that. And post about it on Facebook. Because really, has anything actually happened unless you’ve talked about it on social media? Maybe, but why risk it?

While I Tweeted and FB’ed, Daisy selected and downloaded an app. But then she started reading the small print. The app wanted us to set “meditation goals” by which we could judge our progress. Daily sessions, length of sessions, it all had to be logged in before we could start our meditation. As Daisy put it, “I don’t need an app to make me feel guilty. I can do that by myself.” Besides, isn’t the whole point of meditation to just “be,” not to be goal-oriented?  

But what do we know? Since we were running out of time, we ditched the app, set the timer, and soaked in the sunshine in silence for the next fifteen minutes. You might say that was meditation, and hopefully it was close.

Except I spent much of that time wondering if I could turn the whole experience into a blog post.

Clearly, I need to work on this being/meditating/simplifying concept a little more.  

Have you ever tried meditating? Any recommendations you can share?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Firefighters in Pink

So here we are in October, breast cancer awareness month, and I keep seeing photos like these:

Firefighters around the country are showing their support for the fight against breast cancer by donning the unmanly color pink. Some communities are even going so far as to turn their fire engines pink -- at least temporarily.

Dare I say, that pumper is adorable? I find something so endearing about this mass adoption of the cause, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. What is it that's so touching about firemen in pink? Is it that such a macho profession is standing up against a disease that primarily strikes women? Firefighters are touched by breast cancer, of course, though other cancers are more prevalent on the force. I like to think they're choosing to go pink to support the women in their lives -- mothers, sisters, grandmothers, daughters, female firefighters.

Firehouses know how to band together, whether it's to fight a fire or to make a statement to the world. A hunky fireman wearing pink is going to draw attention, which means media coverage, which means greater awareness. And just in case they're worried about this, the color pink doesn't take away from their manly appeal. Quite the opposite, in fact. A fireman donning his gear is just as droolworthy in a pink t-shirt.

Does it make a difference to those battling breast cancer? I can't imagine that it doesn't help to know all those brave men and women have your back.

A firefighter in Victoria, Texas, hugs his mother, a breast cancer sufferer.

So here's a big thank you to the firefighters around the country who are standing tall, rocking the pink, raising money and spreading awareness of breast cancer. I think I fell just a little bit more in love with these guys!

Have you seen other instances of your local fire department going pink this month? I'd love to hear about it!