By Carly Lanning
Scott Schweitzer saw a small lump in the shape of an almond on the side of his neck one morning while he was shaving.
Mike Dubron had blood in his stools which his doctors continued to brush off as hemorrhoids.
Steve Meilkus felt a pop in his neck while doing shoulder shrugs and a week later, noticed a lump in his neck which continued to grow.
All three men are local firefighters who believe there is a connection between their life's work and their illnesses.
The Firefighter’s Prayer- When I am called to duty,God, wherever flames may rage; Give me strength to save some life, whatever be its age. Help me embrace a little child before it is to late or save an older person from the horror of this fate.
A shift at the fire station starts at 7:30 am and last for 24 hours. As Scott walks into the station, turnouts in hand along with a cup of coffee, he passes by the fire engine starting up and leaving the station to go on a call. Throwing his newspaper down on the kitchen counter, he pours himself another cup, taking little notice to the fumes seeping in from the apparatus floor. The apparatus floor of the fire station is attached to most major rooms within the fire house, allowing the diesel exhaust of the truck to sift through the air of the kitchen, bathrooms, offices and bed rooms.
Steve’s first run comes in, jumping into his turnouts, he is off to a structure fire off of Burbank Boulevard. Opening the windows to let in some breeze to cool down the cab of the engine, the diesel exhaust sifts through the air, catching within the fabric of his bright yellow turnouts.
Enable me to be alert and hear the weakest shout, and quickly and efficiently to put the fire out. I want to fill my calling and to give the best in me, to guard my every neighbor and protect his property.
Reaching the building, Mikes’ is the first engine to arrive, meaning that his chief is in charge of coordinating the efforts of fighting and extinguishing this structure. He is the first one in, and by the unwritten rule within the service, he and his crew will be the last ones out. Though he will go in with his 20 pounds of turnouts and a 40 pound breathing apparatus on, the air tanks only last for 30 minutes and he does not have a back up. When the fire is out, everyone takes off their breathing apparatus, and puts on thin paper mesh respirator while they begin to clean around the burned material. These masks were made to filter out large particles but have Overturning the burned ground and looking for embers, the smoke and charred ground is saturated with carcinogens found from plastics and household products. Mike is inhaling all of this, realizing half way through that his throat is beginning to hurt, his eyes are beginning to burn. But he keeps on working because he is a firefighter, he is macho, he is invincible.
And if, according to my fate, I am to lose my life...
His fate was to be a hero. But for some men and women, often the bravest men, and the strongest women, their fate did not come in the form of being trapped in a burning building, their fate was slower, more gradual. Their fate came from the exhaust, from the chemicals, from the smoke. Their fate, like Scott and Steve and Mike, came in the form of cancer.
Scott Shweitzer had always been an athlete. Setting state records in track and cross country, Scott spent little of his 56 years sitting still. He has been a firefighter paramedic for 27 years, a husband for 34 years, a father for 30 years, and a cancer survivor for 2. Discovering that he had tongue cancer in 2008, he underwent surgery in October in which the oncologists at USC Norris center removed a 1cm tumor on the back on his throat, and a series of lymph nodes in the surrounding areas. His permanent side effects include his inability to swallow food, the restriction of how far he can open his mouth, the depletion of his salivary glands and his new addiction to avocados. “When they say you have cancer, you think you are going to be dead within a couple of days but everyone around me has been so positive and I’ve always thought of it as just a minor inconvenience,” recalls Schweitzer, as he continually sips his ice tea to moisten his mouth. A month later he began radiation, lasting from November 1st until January 11th of 2009. Though it is something Schweitzer says he can jokingly “live with,” the radiation took an incredible toll on his body, dropping him down from 170 pounds down to 120 pounds during his 10 weeks of treatment. This prompted doctors to insert of a feeding tube into his stomach to help stabilize his weight lose. With his recovery process being a grueling and exhausting journey, Scott rejoined his Burbank firefighting family after being off the force for 11 and a half months. “I was scared I wasn’t going to be able to do the job, so much of out job requires muscle and when you are down to 120, you don’t just lose the fat, you lose the muscle.” From barely being able to get up to take the trip to the bathroom, Schweitzer regained his normal pace of life, getting his weight up to 165, passing his physical reentry exam back onto the line. “So many people count on you and you hate to let anybody down, especially the chiefs and my co- workers, plus I didn’t want to drop someone down the stairs, that’s just bad form.” When asked if he believed his cancer was job related, he replied without any hesitation “Yes. In the old days we barely wore our breathing apparatus, we just dealt with it like “oh yeah, that does smell bad!” When asked if knowing what he knew now about the risks of cancer, would he still join the department, it took him less time to reply “Oh yeah! Te rewards outweigh everything. The Burbank Fire Department was my support group. During my recovery, there wasn’t a day in which I didn’t get at least a phone call from a friend or someone on the department.” Though three years short of reaching remission, Scott has tested cancer negative during his last 3 PET scans. Healthy, happy and strong, the only step left to achieving ultimate recovery is being able to again eat a pastrami sandwich.
Steve Meilkus, a firefighter for 20 years, was diagnosed with squamos cell carcinoma in November of 2001, after a lump in his neck began to develop. Three days after receiving the news that the lymph nodes in his neck were cancerous, Steve underwent surgery that removed 13 of his lymph nodes. In January of 2002 he began radiation, ending on Valentine’s Day of that same year. Due to the irritation caused by the radiation, he was unable to eat or drink because of the constriction of his throat. He lost 58 pounds during his 6 weeks of radiation, receiving no pain management advice or assistance. Despite being physically depleted during his treatment, Steve was determined not to stop doing things himself, as he continued to mow the lawn despite feeling horrible. “I think it was my positive attitude that got me through everything,” he recounts. He received much support from his family, family friends and through his religion. He believes, “There are so many contributing factors to my cancer . The type of cancer I had is known to be a cancer that is prevalent amongst oil workers, firemen and anybody around hydrocarbons a lot. It’s highly probably this is all connected because at the old stations, your bedding smelled like diesel smoke because the dorms were right off the garage. The diesel smoke would just go everywhere and stay low.” Making everyday worthwhile, Steve no longer sweats the small stuff in life. He says with a smile, “I could be gone but I’m still here so that’s a plus.”
In 2006, the University of Cincinnati began research on the links between cancer and the insufficiency of the firefighter’s personal protective equipment(PPE), most importantly their turnouts and breathing apparatuses. Grace LeMasters, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UC, found that firefighters are at a significantly higher rate of developing Prostate cancer, testicular cancer, non- Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and Multiple Myeloma than the average American. Findings show the dangers of materials, such as “benzene, diesel engine exhaust, chloroform, soot, and styrene, can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin and occur both at the scene of a fire and in the firehouse, where idling diesel fire trucks produce diesel exhaust.” Establishing a direct correlation between chemical exposures in the fire department and the increase of cancer, there is a demand for an increase in the use of PPE among fire departments nationwide. Taking the first step towards ensuring the coverage of firefighter’s medical expenses should the event of cancer come upon them, the first national cancer presumptive act was passed in 1982. This act covered the medical costs of firefighters up to five years of after their retirement, assuming that any cancer developed during this time would be considered job related. Taking it down to a more local level, presumptive acts have been passed by 22 states. Currently in California, the California Professional Firefighters have introduced the William Dallas Jones Memorial Cancer Presumption Act of 2010 to further the cause of protecting their own brothers and sisters from this life altering illness. If passed the Dallas Jones Cancer Presumption Act “protects firefighters’ cancer presumption for up to 15 years after his or her retirement. This will still require employers provide appropriate disability and workers’ compensation benefits to first responders who become ill or die as a result of specified job- contracted illnesses or injuries.” Helping to build solid financial protection for its firefighters and their families, policies left open the emotional end of this illness. This is where Mike Dubron and his Cancer Support Network come in.
Mike Dubron, a firefighter for 28 years and crew chief for LA County fire helicopter services, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in February of 2003 at the age of 39. After his first tests, he was diagnosed as stage three and given one to three years of survival. He received surgery at USC Norris in February of that year, removing a large mass and the lymph nodes in the surrounding abdominal regions. The surgery was a major success, and thus began the recovery period as Mike had to relearn how to go to the bathroom. During this same time he began to formulate ideas of how he could help others turn from cancer victims into cancer survivors. Tracing it back, Mike believes that his cancer was job related. “We are exposed to all these products of unknown combustions where they are complete and incomplete, creating tons of carcinogens.” Being in remission for 7 years, he is considered to be cured from his cancer, and now living his life in what he believes to be “bonus time.” “I always liked the line from the “Shawshank Redemption” which I think is so true in my case, they say “Get busy living or get busy dying.” I want to be busy living. I want to stay positive.” And living he did, as he thinks back to how far he has come since those dark days in February. “I remember when I was diagnosed I had ordered a new pair of boots online for my work, a particular pair that I liked. I had them ordered before I was diagnosed and they came after I was diagnosed. I remember telling my wife, “Well go ahead and ship those back because I am never going to wear them again.” And low and behold, I got to use them.” While sitting at home during his 9 months of recovery, Mike began to formulate the idea of organizing a cancer support group in which firefighters would be there to support other firefighters.
Starting locally, the Firefighter Cancer Support Network(FCSN) grew until it was officially established as a non- profit organization in 2006. This group, now a national organization with branches in 22 states, was created for two purpose: one, to build relationships in which firefighters help other firefighters deal the difficulties of cancer, and two, to educate firefighters about taking a proactive approach regarding cancer.
The Firefighter Cancer Support Network is based on the simple idea that firefighters can relate, no matter the distance, with other firefighters. As Jeff Howe, current treasurer for the Cancer Support Network, puts it, “different circus, same clowns.” When a person is diagnosed with cancer, they can either go online to the FCSN website and fill out a request form or call in to their toll free number. Then members of the organization will begin the search to pair this cancer victim with a mentor, or cancer survivor. All members of this organization are either firefighters or immediate family members. Coordinators go into the database and find another firefighter or family member that is a survivor of the same or a similar form of cancer. This begins the relationship between the survivor and victim. With this organization constantly growing, the pairing is done on the basis of similar diagnoses and treatment routes rather than geographical regions. Mentors and mentees can be as far away as California and New York, so the communication is done mostly through email or on the phone. Mike created this approach because he saw it as a “very positive way to help when people are initially diagnosed. They feel a lose of control,and this helps them regain that, get people back on the ground and get them focused and educated about their cancer.” Jeff Howe, firefighter for Burbank City for 30 years and strong advocate for cancer education, says that he has seen the changes that this program has brought to so many lives. “For me,” Jeff says, “with cancer, it is a lot less of if you are going to be exposed but when you are going to be exposed. I believe in Mike and the FCSN, we are helping our own. Some of the letters we get back make it incredibly rewarding. Some say, “I came home today and found my package from the FCSN and went through it all night and I got my life together. I am going to beat cancer.” The second part of his program, Mike takes on personally, traveling all around the country to educate fire departments about the preventative measures that need to be taken to ensure the health of their firefighters. During his presentations, he talks about the statistics surrounding firefighter cancer, his own personal story with the disease and the political propositions supporting firefighter health. “It’s a tough culture to educate,” Mike admits, “It is hard to walk in the door with an iron fist and force upon them the reasons why they should have a wellness exam and convince them to conduct their business a certain way.” Instead, Mike, along with other presenters for the FCSN, take a more positive advance and place a large emphasis on reminding the firefighters that these tests are not only to protect themselves but to protect their families. This is Mike’s best approach because, “this often leads to them taking a step back and thinking, yeah, it is important for me to see my daughter walk down the aisle and get married. If I can avoid being diagnosed with cancer by getting screened and avoiding all this tragedy, then maybe its worth it.”
And this is just what Mike Dubron has done, helped others avoid tragedy and get busy living. Though his fate may have included cancer, that was far from being his ending note.
-1 lengthy interview with Mike Dubron, founder and president of FCSN
-1 lengthy interview with Jeff Howe, treasurer for FCSN
-1 hour interview with Scott Shweitzer, Burbank City firefighter and cancer survivor
-1 30 minute interview with Steve Meilkus
-Observation at Burbank Fire Station 13
-FCSN Educational slide shows
-Healthnews- University of Cinncinati cancer findings
-California Professional Firefighters monthly news letter
-Various published articles features Mike Dubron