Incoming Pa. fire chief says lung cancer won't slow him down

Erie Fire Department Assistant Chief Joe Walko will become fire chief in January after being diagnosed with cancer last year


David Bruce
Erie Times-News, Pa.

ERIE, Pa. — Retirement never entered Joe Walko's thoughts.

Not when a diagnostic scan in December showed a small tumor in Walko's left lung. Not even when surgeons at UPMC Hamot had to remove the lung's top lobe or when Walko had to undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Joe Walko, who will become the new Erie Bureau of Fire chief on Jan. 1, has been battling early-stage lung cancer for almost a year. (Photo/David Bruce, Erie Times-News)
Joe Walko, who will become the new Erie Bureau of Fire chief on Jan. 1, has been battling early-stage lung cancer for almost a year. (Photo/David Bruce, Erie Times-News)

But a promotion to become the next Erie Bureau of Fire chief? That thought had come to Walko at times during his 39-year career as an Erie firefighter.

"I've had it on my mind for a while," said Walko, the assistant fire chief. "(Current Fire Chief) Guy Santone has redefined this department. In my 39 years, morale has never been better. With Guy retiring, what a great time to be fire chief."

Walko's promotion, which takes effect Jan. 1, is just the latest turn in a roller-coaster year that started in December with a visit to his primary care physician.

The doctor had recommended a low-dose CT scan of the lungs because Walko, 64, had smoked for about 30 years before quitting seven or eight years ago.

"I got the scan and the news was bad," Walko said. "There was something in the top left lobe about the size of an M&M."

Walko was referred to Stephen Kovacs, D.O, a Hamot pulmonologist who specializes in flexible robotic bronchoscopy to take biopsies of small tumors in hard-to-reach areas of the lungs.

A biopsy was taken in late December and Kovacs called a few days later with the news: Walko had lung cancer.

"I told him that unfortunately the biopsy confirmed the cancer, but we are fortunate to catch this as early as possible," Kovacs said. "Having these scans available, along with robotic bronchoscopy, has enabled more people to be diagnosed at an earlier, more treatable stage."

Walko said he expected the result, but it still wasn't easy for him to break the news to his family.

"The most difficult part was telling my kids," Walko said, referring to his adult children Jake, Julie and Kelly. "My wife, Terry, and I told them separately."

Surgery was the next step, though removing the tumor was more difficult than expected.

It was postponed at the last minute when Walko, who had been recently diagnosed with diabetes, arrived at Hamot with elevated blood-sugar levels.

Walko was able to stabilize his blood-sugar levels and returned to Hamot in late January for the surgery. The tumor was removed but Walko would learn he needed additional surgery.

"I went back to my surgeon three weeks later and she started crying," Walko said. "She said she's so sorry ... but I needed to have the entire lobe of the lung removed."

A follow-up surgery was successful and doctors scheduled chemotherapy at Hamot, followed by radiation treatments at the Regional Cancer Center.

Despite getting chemotherapy every third Thursday, Walko said he missed relatively little work. He would take off the day he received chemotherapy and the following Friday and Monday.

"When I was growing up, my mom worked at GE and my dad worked at Continental Rubber," Walko said. "I saw her get ready for work every morning and Dad worked second shift. There was a strong work ethic."

Though being assistant fire chief is an administrative job, Walko does travel to the scene of major fires or when a firefighter is hurt on the scene.

Walko knows to pace himself, because his stamina isn't what it was before the surgery and cancer treatments. He also has struggled at times with the side effects of diabetes and chemotherapy drugs.

"I just have to pace myself slower and there are times when I had to close my office door because I was struggling with the effects of chemotherapy," Walko said. "But I love my job and I love these men and women I work with."

Walko said he doesn't know his prognosis. His medical oncologist told him that he was "very pleased" during a recent visit but Walko admitted he is not the type of person who asks questions during doctor's appointments.

A person with stage 1 lung cancer, like Walko, has an 85 percent five-year survival rate, Kovacs said, while someone diagnosed at stage 3 has about a 15 percent five-year survival rate.

"Early detection and early treatment is so important, especially with lung cancer," Kovacs said.

As he prepares for his new job and his final 10 radiation treatments, Walko said he is ready for whatever happens in the future.

"It's not going to slow me down," Walko said. "I'm excited about what is ahead for me."

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©2019 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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