If Tomorrow Never Comes: Coping with a Cancer Diagnosis

By Chief Brian F. McQueen
Reprinted from the NVFC’s Helpletter

While in New York City to see his oncologist, Brian McQueen stopped by St. Patrick's Cathedral to light a candle for firefighters battling cancer.

While in New York City to see his oncologist, Brian McQueen stopped by St. Patrick’s Cathedral to light a candle for firefighters battling cancer.

I often wondered how I would be able to place into words the thoughts that rumble through my mind ever since I was told “YOU HAVE CANCER!” In doing this I only need to listen to the song by Tim McGraw, “Humble and Kind,” or read the poem written by an unknown artist titled “If Tomorrow Never Comes” to realize the pain and suffering of all firefighters who have heard those words, his/her family, friends, and co-workers whose lives have been changed forever.

I’ve realized first hand, as so many of my cancer friends in the fire service have, that the pain never goes away. To those who have not been touched by cancer, you may never understand the pain and suffering from within that we endure. Many of us live by the words of Tim McGraw as we face the unknown: “Don’t take for granted the love this life gives you, When you get where you’re going, Don’t forget turn back around, And help the next one in line, Always stay humble and kind.”

We know through research that firefighters have a greater risk of getting cancer than the general public. We know that fires are burning hotter than 15 years ago. We know that the time to exit a burning building before conditions become incompatible with life is now anywhere from 3.5-4.0 minutes from when the fire started. We know that we must teach cancer prevention education to our firefighters, both to our new recruits and veterans. Wearing full protective ensemble, using baby wipes, stop using tobacco products, and deconing ourselves after a fire are just a few steps that we must take to protect ourselves.

Are we doing it? I find it quite upsetting to look at videos of fires on social media blogs and see our leadership, those who pride themselves on wearing the white helmet, having the dirtiest looking helmets, knowing that they believe this is a badge of courage. To me, as a cancer survivor, that’s failed leadership! They really don’t understand that cancer doesn’t impact their lives today or tomorrow, but may greatly impact their lives in 10-15 years.

Are we taking the lessons learned about cancer seriously? Is the media finally realizing that dirty, salty looking equipment does not have to sell their product? These are answers that only our leadership and the individual firefighter can answer. Organizations such as the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, Firefighter Cancer Support Network, Firefighter Cancer Foundation, National Volunteer Fire Council, and the Believe 271 Foundation, Inc. have provided grassroots educational messages that we all can take back to the tailboard at our fire stations.

What I can tell you is that the pain and suffering of a cancer diagnosis lingers forever. In July my wife and I travelled to Memorial Sloan Cancer Center in New York City for my annual CT scans. This is not my favorite time of year as any cancer patient worries that the message from the oncologist will not be what they want to hear.  This stress and anxiety plays a roll on my loved ones, my friends, and my brother and sister firefighters at my volunteer fire station. Cancer affects more than yourself!

For me, I often just sit and pray, talk to God, and ask for protection throughout my tests and results. As you drink the CT “cocktail,” lie on the CT scan machine, and await the results, you think about so much. You think about your loved ones, about what to do if the answers you receive are not what you wanted. You think about why our legislative body can’t see through this pain and suffering when trying to pass the presumptive legislation bill. You think about how so much money is misspent across our states on things that mean so little. You lay on the table wondering, is someone really listening, or don’t they really care. And, for many of us, you pray!

In closing, let me share a few lines from the poem, “If I Knew:”

“So hold your loved ones close today, and whisper in their ear,
 Tell them how much you love them and that you’ll always hold them dear.
 Take time to say, “I’m sorry,” “Please forgive me,” “Thank you,” or “It’s ok.”
 And if tomorrow never comes, you’ll hold no regrets about today.”

Brian F. McQueen is Past Chief of the Whitesboro Volunteer Fire Department, Director with the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York, Board and founding member of the Believe 271 Foundation Inc., Delegate from New York to the National Volunteer Fire Council, Life Member of the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs, and a retired School District Administrator. His educational seminar on cancer has reached more than 2,980 firefighters and was one of the highlighted webinars hosted by the NVFC. Most importantly he is a cancer survivor.