You Have Cancer: One Firefighter’s Journey of Recovery and Paying it Forward

By Brian McQueen
“You have cancer!” The three words that no one would ever want to hear.
These three words are truly game changers in the life of countless firefighters across our country. For my family, my friends, and the brotherhood within the fire service in my county, surrounding counties, and state, the news of my cancer diagnosis was taken quite hard by many. Please allow me to share my story with you in hopes that you will take the messages from within and live a cancer free life. 
In October of 2013, my wife and I were planning our one week yearly vacation with our friends for late November. I had been dealing with cold symptoms for about two months so my wife finally convinced me to see my general physician, Dr. Toby Taylor. Dr. Taylor’s staff was great and got me in to see him within a week. After being seen by Dr. Taylor, it was thought that the enlarged lymph nodes were just the lymph nodes doing their job… fighting off infection from a cold. He prescribed antibiotics to fight the infection that showed up as a lump in the left side of my neck. 
While on vacation my condition improved with the use of the antibiotics. However, a week after my return… so did the enlarged lymph nodes in my neck. Back from vacation, I returned to Dr. Taylor’s office and another round of antibiotics was prescribed. Once again my condition improved. But we all know that with any diagnosis, a follow up was required. Three weeks after my first visit, the doctor thoroughly examined me, only to find out that things just didn’t seem right and further testing was needed. He sent me for a chest x-ray and blood tests, both of which were negative. He also recommended that I go see an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist. My wife and I were concerned… but the big “C” never crossed our minds.
The ENT examined me and requested I have a short needle biopsy. Following the short needle biopsy, my wife Sarah and I met with the doctor two weeks before Christmas, who so bluntly stated, “You have B Cell Lymphoma!”  
That, my friends, was the game changer for Sarah and me. No one in my family ever had cancer! I never smoked a day in my life! I remember us walking out of the doctor’s office on a cold December day, hand in hand, crying like babies. What do we do now? Where do we go? How much longer do I have to live? How will we tell my son and his wife? All questions that I know those battling cancer have gone through. Who do I call for help? Is cancer curable? Do I write my obituary? So many questions to be answered… our heads were spinning!
At the fire station I told some of my closer friends of my diagnosis. My assistant chief shared this information with his wife, who teaches in the elementary school. She in turn shared my diagnosis with her teacher’s assistant, Sue. Sue’s husband had battled cancer and was cancer free for the last four years. Through emails, texts, and lengthy phone calls, Sue convinced Sarah to seek a second opinion… and “out of town!” It’s not that we don’t have good medical facilities here where we live, but as I tell others, “When you buy a Ford, you take it to the Ford dealership for service. With cancer, you go to the best cancer research and treatment centers in the world – Memorial Sloan Kettering Center in New York City!” We heeded Sue’s message and positive experience and decided to contact Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York City. 
With no referral needed, we contacted MSKCC by phone and they immediately got us into their system, requesting test results and ordering additional tests to be taken. On Christmas Eve, I underwent a 2 hour PET scan, which confirmed my cancer. Would this be my last Christmas?
The staff at MSKCC were amazing! Very compassionate, understanding, and thorough with each phone call. Our first visit at Sloan was scheduled for January 17. We met with a team of oncologists whom specialized in lymphoma. Questions started with the usual medical history and stalled on my volunteer firefighter status. This team questioned me for over one hour as to the type of fires that I fought and investigated over my 38-year career as a volunteer firefighter. What were they saying? My lifelong passion may be killing me?
The oncologists punctuated the meeting by stating that B Cell Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma was the fastest growing cancer in the fire service today. Renown oncologist, Dr. Joachim Yahalom, reassured us that he was 95% sure he could cure the cancer in my neck.
Sarah and I went home, spoke to our son and daughter-in-law, my brother and his wife, and my two special friends to inform them that we plan to leave the area to get the best treatment possible. It took some coaxing for me to leave, but the more people I spoke with the more the picture became clearer. Treatment would be done using Intensified Modulated Radiation Therapy for 20 days (Monday-Friday) in New York City. This therapy consisted of me being locked onto a table wearing an upper body plastic mask for my daily treatments.
Now comes why I firmly believe that the brotherhood is invaluable during times of need. One week into my treatments, I received a phone call from Chief Brian Healey of the Barneveld Fire Department asking to meet me for lunch with his Assistant Chief Brian Palmer, who once was a member of my department. They heard of my cancer issue and where and how long treatment was going to take place. They wanted to help out with the financial demands related to my treatment and living expenses while in New York City. 
I met with Chief Healey and stated that thanks to my Whitesboro Fire Department team and my brother Bob, my personal expenses would be minimal. What I did ask was for them to ‘Pay it Forward’ by taking this initiative and make it grow. Make it bigger so we can help other firefighters and ladies auxiliary members fighting cancer and other debilitating diseases. They wanted to sell helmet decals to start up their fundraising and they asked for design ideas. As Deputy Fire Coordinator in my county, my car number is 271 and you have “To Believe”… thus they started the Believe 271 Foundation Inc., a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization. The sale of the helmet stickers began on St. Patrick’s Day, while I was still undergoing to treatments in NYC. Their goal was to sell 350 stickers. To date they have sold over 2,500 helmet and apparatus stickers!
Once I returned home from my treatments, we formed a 10 member board from representatives of fire and ladies auxiliaries across our county. There are countless residuals that came from the Believe 271 Mission. Our foundation has brought the fire service together to be one from both the Oneida and Herkimer counties. Fire departments, ladies auxiliaries, community members, former colleagues and private companies made donations to support our mission. They believed! It was neighbor helping neighbor emotionally and educationally all across both counties as they held various fundraisers to help support the Believe 271 Mission where “No One Will Ever Fight Alone.” 
To date, the foundation has raised over $55,000 and has paid out in excess of $11,000 to those in need. Upon request from the foundation, I put together a 1.5 hour seminar titled: “Cancer in the Fire Service – A Growing Epidemic.” This program has been taken through Oneida, Herkimer, and Onondaga counties, educating close to 300 firefighters as to the dangers we face as firefighters in the world of faster, hotter, and more poisonous fires. Our foundation offers this program free to those interested.
We have been cognizant of the cancer impairment bill that has been discussed for four to five years in New York State. Our foundation will stand together with the state’s fire service in hoping that movement can be accomplished and this bill can be passed for the volunteer fire service of New York State.
On May 7, I returned to MSKCC for my two month check-up and PET scan. The news the next day was just what I was waiting for: “You have a clear scan from head to toe.” While in New York, Sarah and I continued to attend mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I was blessed by one of the priests and lit candles for those battling cancer. 
What came from all of this? Through my research using statistics from NIOSH and the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, I became educated as to the dangers that firefighting can have on our lives if we don’t heed these important messages. From diesel exhaust in our fire station’s engine room floor, to the plastics and carbons burning in furniture today, the need to wear a mask and SCBA throughout all firefighting and overhaul is essential. Using air monitoring devices prior to overhaul and investigations is crucial. Early screenings are a must for all firefighters. Inclusion of annual screenings with your annual physicals should be budgeted and included without cost to firefighters. Complacency should not be found anywhere in the fire service. The NIOSH report states: “Cancers of the respiratory, digestive, and urinary systems accounted mostly for the higher rates of cancer seen in the study population. The higher rates suggest that firefighters are more likely to develop those cancers.”  
Avenues are available for all of us to use. The Assistance to Firefighters Grant program allows applicants to apply for diesel exhaust systems in their fire stations. Engine room bays can be some of the dangerous areas for firefighters. As apparatus start up, diesel exhaust carbons land on gear placed in our gear lockers. These carbons are transferred to our skin through absorption, thus leading to one area of the firefighter where cancer-causing particles can enter the body. You, and your family, depend on your health.
We were always taught that it’s not fun fighting a fire that could have been prevented. Fighting for your life, battling cancer is not fun at all. Take the initiative – get screened today. Encourage your elected officials to place diesel exhaust systems in your stations and stay vigilant to changing conditions attacking the fires of today.
As I close this article, I had my six month check-up in December and will continue to return to MSKCC for future checkups in hopes of remaining cancer free. Together we can fight and win at fighting fires and beating cancer!
Brian McQueen is a 38 year member of the Whitesboro VFD. He served as their Past Chief and currently serves as their President. He is a Director of the Firemen's Association of the State of New York, NVFC Alternate from New York, Deputy Fire Coordinator for Oneida County in charge of Training, retired school administrator, and current Board Member for Whitesboro Central School District. He and his wife Sarah have one son, Ryan, and daughter-in-law, Erin.