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Cancer, Now What?

The following post was submitted by ILFFPS Peer Coordinator Chuck Wehrli (Naperville, ret.) about an all too important subject matter that is often ignored by the fire service.


Reports are that 1 in 3 firefighters will come down with some type of cancer. Not very good odds but we can change this. With all the carcinogenic materials in the homes and vehicles we fight fires in, this is a better reason to not breathe smoke. Aggressive Officers need to make sure all PPE is worn and cleaned after every fire. The old crappy- looking gear is not a badge of machismo anymore, but more of laziness and egos.

With these fires burning hotter and faster then ever before we need to set an example for our peers and the next generation firefighters. We also need to promote better health issues like smoking and chewing. It should be banned from the firehouses. I know some of you will say bullshit, I expect that but take it from someone that has had cancer, and as of this writing going through a different one now.
A little about my journey:  I spent 34 years in the fire service where I was raised to get in, breath smoke, maybe throw up and go out and have a cigarette. That’s the way it was with very little use of an air pack. My leaders, some that were former military, said tough it out kid- that’s the job. Now things have changed, newer materials being used that we are finding out will kill us.  Fire retardants that can cause cancer that’s supposed to protect us and one easy fix: being knowledgeable and having the balls to protect each other and send our crews home safe.

6 years after retirement I was diagnosed with stage 4 tongue cancer. It started with a lump on the side of my neck, went to the doctor who took a blood draw for testing. While out of town teaching a class the doctors office called and said it was highly suspicious malignancy and to follow up immediately.  Damn.  I saw a Doctor at Rush Hospital in Chicago who asked to look down my throat , I thought heck the lumps on my neck. Then the shock, ”you have stage four tongue cancer but I know how to take care of it”.  I looked at my wife with disbelief. My first thought was go figure, retired enjoying teaching across the country now this.

Number one on the list that causes this type of cancer is chewing, which I have never done.  Down the list is smoking, breathing smoke, HPV virus, heavy Bourbon drinking, (which I don’t drink), and the possible effects of my time at “Ground Zero”.

I really didn’t care what caused it, I just wanted it gone. So after 30 radiation and 6 chemo treatments, forty staples putting my neck back together, and the use of the Divinci Knife to remove the tumor off my tongue, I started my healing. I lost 50 pounds and my saliva glands, and to this day still can’t eat the things I used to enjoy.  I was cancer free until the day before Thanksgiving of this year when I was diagnosed with skin cancer. The Doc said its from being out in the sun and it’s the easiest one to fix.  Wow good news-  I guess.


The great news is that I’m alive and can share this story to make it better for those in the fire service and those some day joining the fire service. We need good aggressive leaders that will always fight to protect their personnel either by enforcing keeping their mask on until it’s clear, wearing a seat belt, and sending them home at the end of their shift.  Make it Safe.

Chuck Wehrli

First Responders . . . After All, We Are Only Human

Last week, I responded to calls for assistance that did not have a good outcome.  The first was a cardiac arrest which we worked by the numbers, our patient fought valiantly to stay with us, but in the end he passed away.  As a lieutenant, my job is to go back into the house to make sure we left no equipment behind, as well as get additional information about the patient that I would relay to the crew who left for the hospital.  Not knowing the family dynamics, I asked a woman what her relationship to the patient was.  She replied that he was her husband of close to 5 decades, and she fell in love with him when she was a young teenager.

Now I have had to ask this question numerous times in over 21 years on the job, but her response struck an emotional chord with me.  As I returned alone to the firehouse, I reflected on how this couple made an extraordinary commitment of a lifetime that was about to conclude its earthly existence.  It weakened me to know that all of us humans will face this same scenario, and it is something we can never truly prepare for.  My heart sank for this couple on that very night.

The second call which came the following shift, involved an industrial accident.  The patient was alert and oriented x 3, and talking with us the entire time.  He did have obvious traumatic injuries that seemed more benign at the time.  Once again, we worked this call by the numbers.  As the ambulance crew arrived at the hospital, he began to decompensate.  The hospital continued our care, and searched for the answers to this puzzle.  A few hours later, the patient died.  This call kept me awake for half the night trying to make sense out of this incident.
In the days that followed I could feel my stress rising, but not to the point of a PTSD level.  This was confirmed during my next Nutrition Response Testing appointment when I found out that my adrenals and frontal brain area were weakened and needed additional nutritional supplementation.  However, it wasn’t until Tuesday’s yoga class, where the practice involved a kriya to relieve elementary stress- that the sense of peace and calm I have become so accustomed to had returned.  It was then that I learned a most important lesson.
Thoughts in my head echoed the words of Matt Olson when he said “As long as we are doing this job, the hits are going to keep on coming.  What’s important is how we deal with them once we become aware of the effects on our psyche”.  Sage words of advice from someone who has been there, and done that.  The lesson I learned was this: We are going to respond to calls that may result in the death of a patient as it is part of the package deal that comes along with the oath we took.  Additionally, these types of calls may bring us down, but we must reconcile the fact that we did the best we could at the time on behalf of the patient.  After that, all we can do is offer a moment of silence, prayer, or reflection (based on your own personal belief system) that grants them safe passage to wherever their final destination may be.


Just remember, it is not wrong or a sign of weakness to express emotion over the loss of another being, as this shows that you care.  However, don’t let these types of calls stack up to the point you are overwhelmed, and unable to function on or off the job.  Reach out for help, as this is why the ILFFPS exists as an entity.  After all, we are only human.
Until next time,
Take care and stay safe,

Reach Out and Heal Someone

Kelli-300x225Last week myself, Kelli Krupa, and Paul Gardner had the privilege of delivering the ILFFPS message to firefighters in MABAS 21 which was hosted by the Chicago Ridge Fire Department.  Two weeks prior to this event, I presented the message to the firefighter candidates at the Moraine Valley Fire Academy.  My thoughts about those few days will be included in the next team newsletter, but it really got me thinking about the two main reasons we exist as a team.

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Back To Work

In the latest in a continuing series of posts, Tom Howard tells us that he was returned to duty after recent cardiac issues. Although he is “cleared” physically, thoughts still tumble around in his head  as to what’s next.

firefighter-2Bparamedic-300x300     If you haven’t been following, I had developed what I called a “feeling” in my chest at a recent fire. In all honesty was chest pressure. I hesitate to call it that, after all I’m 49 not 69. Anyway, its official, I have returned to work full duty with no restrictions. That’s what the paper from the doctor says, with the added bonus from the city doctor that it was not duty related. According to my cardiologist when I am under a severe physical load the arteries around my heart go into a spasm causing the pressure and the feeling of fatigue. I cannot duplicate this on a stress test as it’s just not stressful enough. I think it is important for us to really understand that the stress levels we encounter cannot be duplicated outside of doing what each of us, as firefighters, are prepared to do every day.

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Who Are The Real Heroes In This World?

Peer-2BSupport-2BLogoWhen we think about heroes the list is endless: Batman, Robin, Spiderman, Hulk, Iron Man, Wonder Woman, The Justice League of America, and so on.  How about sports figures: Michael Jordan, Lebron James, Nolan Ryan, Reggie Jackson, Derrick Jeter, etc.  As kids (past and present) our list was endless as to who we wanted to be like, especially if they were a key player in either stopping the bad guys or winning a world championship.  Alas, we are all grown up and yet we will still hold on to these fond memories for time and eternity.  As first responders, we are often viewed as heroes to this world.  This begs the question: Who are the real heroes to the men and women who pin on the badge?

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