by Retired Fire Captain Bob Pera
The day I walked out of the firehouse on my last day on the job, I thought to myself: “Wow, I made it. I didn’t get killed and I didn’t get anyone else killed.” I breathed a sigh of relief.
I loved my job as a firefighter but was more than excited to get on with retirement; maybe travel, spend more time with my girls, and catch up on the honey-do list I have been putting off.
However, a month after retirement, I went in for my routine physical. That appointment changed everything. And after further testing, I got the news no one wants to hear: “You have cancer.”
I never thought it would be me. But, it was. I was diagnosed with bladder cancer.
Prior to my diagnosis, I had no real symptoms and was feeling fine. The only red flag was microscopic blood in the urine. My physician kind of blew it off, attributing the blood to other variables. I wanted peace of mind, and we decided to do more testing. I am sure glad I did.
My oncologist at USC said it looked like the cancer stayed localized to the bladder and hadn’t spread which was a positive in this situation. Nonetheless, my doctor reminded me that this cancer can be fatal. It is aggressive and takes no prisoners. Later that month, I started treatment at USC’s Norris Cancer Center .
Today, I still receive consistent immunotherapy treatments to help fight the carcinoma within my bladder. So far, my biopsies have returned clear. However, I cannot declare that I am “cancer-free”.
In fact, I will continue treatment for the next three years. I won’t lie; anytime I have to see the doctor for a checkup, I feel uneasy. I check my pathology report several times a day, and, in the back of my mind, I still have this fear that the cancer might return or even worse – spread.
After your cancer diagnosis, I guarantee you will go online to see what the survival rate is for your type of cancer. You hope and pray that you will beat the odds. You wonder if you will be here for your daughters’ weddings or if you will meet your future grandkids. You want to be around to take care of your family, but you might not be. A lot goes through your head. It’s hard; believe me.
I know we all think, it won’t be me. I won’t get trapped in a fire or run out of air. I won’t fall through the roof. I won’t get caught in a wildland fire. We train to avoid those types of things from happening. But, what are we doing to prevent the biggest killer of firefighters?
We need to change. Our lives literally depend on it. Sadly, many of us are paying the price. I know at least 20 firefighters from our job, including myself, that have had cancer – half of them have died. And, I know many more across the country that have cancer.
We do a great job of taking care of the public, but we need to do a better job of taking care of ourselves. Many fire departments, including ours, are implementing decontamination policies and procedures. It may not be perfect, but it’s a start. Give it a try. Be a leader. This is for you and your loved ones. And, if you have a better idea, tell your chain-of-command. Try to be part of the solution.
I wouldn’t have traded my career with the fire service for anything, but maybe I would’ve done things a little different, if I had known the outcome. Now, all I can do is spread awareness. We need to do everything we can to either prevent cancer or detect it early, so we have a fighting chance. It will be too late to turn back the clock when the doctor gives you the news. But, you have a chance to change things now. Do it for yourself. Do it for your loved ones.
For more information on retired Fire Captain Bob Pera and the non-profit he founded, please visit his website: extinguishcancer.org