My Battle with Cancer: A Firefighter’s Story of Diagnosis, Treatment, and Recovery
November 22, 2016
By Mike Bucy
Cancer. The five letter word we as firefighters have heard over and over. We respond to patients with it. We have family and friends that have battled it both successfully and not. But you never think it will happen to you.
It does. I was diagnosed two days short of my 50th birthday. I knew what the diagnosis was going to be even before my doctor unceremoniously blurted it out (before he even sat down). I knew a few weeks before − and maybe even before that.
I wasn’t sick. Okay, I didn’t feel sick. I wasn’t losing weight. I wasn’t losing or gaining sleep. I was just me. I really did feel good.
Thanks to my fire district, both career and volunteer staff receive annual physicals. I had mine and while there was nothing “remarkable” in an acute sense, it did show that my Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) had been steadily and slowly increasing over the previous five years. The doctor that administered my physical noted it and highly recommended I see a urologist.
I made the appointment and after the humbling and extended digital exam, he recommended a biopsy due to an “irregularity.” That’s when I knew. He gave me alternate reasons, but somehow I just knew.
It didn’t really affect me. I am a very accepting person when it comes to life’s dealings. In return, you meet those dealings and move on.
The biopsy was next. That was an uncomfortable but not really painful experience. They took twelve samples out of the prostate. I had to take the rest of the day off and couldn’t do too much. After that it was back to work and “normal.”
That inevitable appointment came on a Tuesday morning. The urologist was very matter-of-fact in his approach, but it didn’t really bother me. I knew what the results were already. Actually, hearing the results did not make a bit of difference to me. I left with an armful of materials and some decisions to make.
I headed back to work, but first stopped for breakfast. My girlfriend called (I had texted her earlier about the positive results) and was surprised to find me at breakfast, asking how I could eat. My simple reply was that I was hungry. That is just me. Besides, I didn’t feel bad. I didn’t feel sick.
I am not one to advertise my “life dealings.” I didn’t run to Facebook or to perfect strangers. The only one I initially told was my girlfriend. She is a great friend and is very comforting. Plus, she had been through the cancer routine a few years earlier.
Two days after my diagnosis, I told my office staff. They keep track of my schedule and where I am at − I knew I had several more doctor appointments ahead of me. One looked shocked. The other worried as she had been through breast cancer a few years before.
I had a lot of trouble telling my mother and my son, neither of whom live close by. I finally called my mother and received the obvious reaction. I had to reassure her I was feeling fine and that she did not need to come visit right now. My son was a bit different. We have always been close and he is also a firefighter with my old department in Indiana. I had already planned a visit so I figured that would be a good time to tell him.
That time came and the conversation went well. He knows me. Well. He knows I don’t panic and that I am a pretty calm person. This day was no different. He is stoic just like me. But not quite. I could tell it bothered him even though I tried to reassure him. By then, I had decided on my course of treatment and had learned more about prostate cancer. I told him that if you were going to the cancer store, prostate cancer was probably the one you wanted to get.
After initially telling my office staff, I broke the news to my three fire commissioners, career personnel, and a few good friends that were also volunteers. I never wavered in the message that I felt great and that I wasn’t going anywhere. After all these people were informed, I sent out an email letting the rest of the volunteer members know (I wasn’t going to set a district-wide meeting as we are too big and this was not important enough).
We were very busy through this time as we were planning on running a levy increase and bond for two new fire stations, both needing difficult voter approval. I had many, many meetings scheduled and there was no way I could let this responsibility lapse. I also discussed this with our PR firm and we kept the month of June available, as I had decided on surgery as a resolution.
The decision to remove the prostate was fairly easy for me. There were several choices I had but the first question that needed to be answered was, “Do I leave it in me and treat it with directed radiation, or do I have it surgically removed?”
I had some help in deciding my treatment plan. The Firefighter Cancer Support Network assigned me a mentor, and one of my fire commissioners gave my name to a friend of his who had recently gone through the same situation. I also found talking to a few peers about this was very good for me. My mentors were a huge asset in helping me understand the risks of prostate surgery and the long-term impact this could have on my life. The discussions truly helped me come to my decision.
After that decision, the next question was traditional surgery or robotic surgery. One mentor swore by the robotic and after many conversations and consultations, that is what I chose. The obvious choice was to go to Seattle as they were well-known for this. However, I didn’t have the depth of support to have the surgery there so I chose a surgeon that performed the surgery in Spokane.
On the day of the surgery, my girlfriend took me to the early morning check-in, and eventually the available career staff arrived. I remember not being nervous or afraid − again, it was what it was, no sense in worrying about it. My girlfriend said she was nervous until the surgeon came in, and then she felt ok.
It was important to have these friends there as I had no family close by. While my son, mother, and best friend from Indiana all wanted to come out, I talked them out of it. I knew I was going to be very limited and I wanted them to save the trip for a time we could all enjoy (my son was scheduled to come out a month later). Besides, my girlfriend was already taking off of work to take care of me.
I remember being wheeled into the surgical room and them telling me that I would be inverted, as gravity would help keep my organs away from the prostate and give the surgeon room to maneuver the robotic instruments. That was it − it was lights out after that.
I awoke in the recovery room. IN PAIN. I had never felt pain like that. I was finally wheeled to my room and remember going in and out of sleep with both Moe and the career firefighters there. When I was awake, it hurt. The surgeon came in and said everything went excellent. After that, they wanted me to get up and walk.
That hurt! A burning pain. But you need to fight the pain and get up and walk. It helps your blood circulate and this promotes healing. Plus, they will let you out of the hospital sooner if you listen to them. They wanted one lap, I gave them two. I had an IV, a drain tube, and a catheter in tow, but I did it.
I was allowed to leave the hospital the next afternoon. Moe was my rock and stayed with me for several days and nights in case I needed anything. I had to sleep on the couch as to not disturb my catheter, which had to stay in for 7-10 days. Being a big baseball fan, I found the catheter a bit helpful − I could watch a whole game without getting up!
My fire district family was great too. The volunteers organized meals for me while the career crew took care of my large yard. I am not one to readily accept help from anyone, but I am so glad I did. I think it not only helped me, but it helped them too. In situations like this, people want to help as part of their way of dealing with things.
After the catheter was out, I was able to drive but the pain was still very prevalent. The doctor kept reassuring me that was normal. 12 days after surgery, we had a serious wildland fire near my home. I went to assist and it actually felt pretty good to be out. I only helped close a street and then did press interviews. No one could tell I was 12-days removed from major cancer surgery.
Over the next couple of weeks the pain subsided, and on July 6, 2015, just 28 days removed from surgery, I was able to return to my full duties at work. On July 9, I left for a three-day ATV trip into the Idaho Rockies. That was very therapeutic and I had no issues. A few weeks later my son came to visit me and we spent a day kayaking, again with no issues.
There are a few side effects that slowly diminish with time, and a year and a half later some still have a minimal impact on me. The mentors and doctors both say that these could take up to two years to diminish completely. With major surgery there are no guarantees.
For one, bladder control is not what it used to be − especially with sneezes, coughing, and lifting. I had to wear pads to offset that. While it is an embarrassing subject matter, it happens after this type of surgery, and eventually this subsided to the point where I no longer have to wear the pads. There are also exercises and therapies that can help with bladder control.
Since the prostate controls erections, things need to be “retrained.” A low dose of Cialis goes a long way in helping get things back to normal. The discussion between the doctor and myself has been quite frank and to the point.
Both of these issues can be a societal stigma but you can’t hold back with your questions or concerns. The doctors are there to help you and have dealt with these issues many times. It took almost a full year for things to get back to about 98% normal. My goal remains 100%.
Having never been sick or having to depend much on others, my cancer diagnosis and treatment was a very eye opening life event. For not having any signs or symptoms, I feel incredibly lucky that my fire district cared enough to pay for my physicals. If I did not have an annual physical, the slow, gradual increase in my PSA would not have been caught.
Mike Bucy is the Fire Chief at Stevens County Fire District 1, a 375-square mile, rural district north of Spokane, WA. Mike came from Northwest Indiana after 21 years at Portage as a career firefighter while serving 15 years simultaneously on the Union Township Fire Department, the last five years as Fire Chief. Mike has over 14 years of chief officer experience and speaks nationally on various fire service topics. He enjoys the rural lifestyle which provides great opportunities for ATVing, boating, and camping. Mike can be reached at email@example.com.