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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
[email protected]

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