Fire chief: Taking my cancer battle public

A New York fire chief is making his personal fight against cancer a rallying cry for the fire service to do more to detect and prevent cancer

This feature is part of our new Fire Chief Digital Edition, a quarterly supplement to that brings a sharpened focus to some of the most challenging topics facing fire chiefs and fire service leaders everywhere. Chief McQueen is sharing his journey through cancer to help firefighters better understand and prevent it. You can read more about his experience here. You can also read about Fire Chief columnist Will Wyatt's recent cancer scare here.

By former Chief Brian F. McQueen

It's been just over two years since I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin B-cell lymphoma. To tell you that my life as a firefighter has changed, is an understatement. And that doesn't touch on how much my family has suffered along with me through the rigorous treatments and frequent visits to New York's Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

I know each and every day is a gift from God. My drive to survive and help others understand the impact cancer has had not only on their life, but the loved ones that they have in their helmet, is my goal. And it will remain my goal until we, the leaders in the fire service, realize that cancer is no joke.

Can someone tell me why some of us aren't taking the cancer epidemic in the fire service seriously? You only need to look through social media to find proof of exactly what I am talking about.

Thanks to my wife and my fire service family, I've been able to share the story of cancer and hopefully make a change in the fire service culture. Since my diagnosis we have traveled across New York and parts of the Northeast, educating volunteer and career firefighters to the dangers we face in fires today. Throughout my educational seminars, I have met some of our bravest firefighters — those who fight the battle with cancer not knowing whether tomorrow will ever come.

My wife and I have listened to some of the most gut-wrenching stories of firefighters suffering from this terrible disease never realizing that the job they were doing in serving their community could be killing them. This past fall I did a program for the Association of Fire Districts. Following the program I was approached by a firefighter who contracted cancer after his duty at ground zero. At that time, he never believed that the Zadroga Act would pass.

I also remember quite well the program that we did in Accord Fire Department in Ulster County, N.Y. It was dedicated to their district chief who died a month earlier. Following that program, a firefighter came up to us and shared his fight with brain cancer and the pain suffering it has caused him and his family. Another close friend, a volunteer EMS chief with the Schuyler Volunteer Fire Department, N.Y., fights cancer on a daily basis with his lovely wife and kids at his side throughout.

Back here in central New York, we have heard the sad stories in Willowvale, Sauquoit, Cedarville, Lake Delta, East Herkimer and Little Falls to name a few. Cancer has no limitations, my friends.

A conversation starter

So many times we would get back in the car, tears still welling in our eyes, and realizing the educational mission we are on is more than that. It's giving those suffering a chance to talk about it. This issue of cancer in the fire service is an epidemic and the leadership in departments, along with elected officials, need to realize the impact cancer has on retaining qualified firefighters. It's unacceptable that firefighters are exposed to this disease doing a job they love in service to the community.

Our national and state fire organizations, career and volunteer, realize what an impact cancer can have on their ranks. Thanks to Chief Kevin Quinn and the National Volunteer Fire Council, I was asked to be a part of the National Fallen Firefighters Cancer Alliance Committee in 2015, and have had the pleasure of serving with Chief James Seavey, my brother from Maryland who fights the fight with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Together we have brought this serious issue back to NVFC, formed a cancer task force that will begin to build a foundation of cancer awareness education across the United States and on an international level. This is just one step in addressing the needs of our firefighters.

What baffles me though, is that after all of these educational programs, articles written in firefighting publications, we are still seeing dirty helmets and gear in lockers and in personal vehicles, and dirty, salty looking faces in fire stations following a worker.

The Firefighter Cancer Support Network published an in-depth white paper sharing research along with steps that fire service leaders can take to reduce the possibilities associated with cancer in the fire service.

FCSN President Bryan Frieders says it quite well as it pertains to why these things are still happening in fire stations today. As he travels the nation, he asks fire service leaders, "Are those bugles on your collar or are they plungers?"

While these are strong words coming from a fire chief, they echo the need for stronger leadership, leadership that recognizes the seriousness of the cancer issue and addresses it with new recruits as well as veterans. Boston Fire Department and its union have taken a proactive approach to reviewing all of their policies and embedding cancer prevention education in each of their recruit classes.

This leadership doesn't stop at the fire station doors. Our elected officials must realize as well that cancer prevention budgetary items such as gear washers, dryers, extra sets of personal protective gear, hoods and diesel exhaust capture systems are crucial in our fight against this terrible disease. Putting money into this equipment now will save them money in the future.

Fires are burning hotter than they were just 10 years ago. With over 82,000 chemicals in the building industry, as well as the toxic fumes and cancer-causing carcinogens that burn from the fire retardant drapes and furniture, firefighters have a two-times greater chance of getting cancer than the general public.

It's time we took a positive approach to this cancer epidemic. Take a lesson from Boston and enforce cancer prevention education programs in new recruit trainings, as well as day-to-day training exercise. Cancer may not affect you today. But 15 years down the road, when the doctor says those three dreaded words no one wants to hear: "You have cancer," is not the time you want to think about prevention.

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