Skin Diaries

Fighting Fires and Melanoma

I’m a firefighter. Someone once lovingly called us a group of “macho bastards”. We’re tough, self-sacrificing, and stubborn. The day my future disappeared, my macho demeanor suddenly changed to extremely vulnerable and fearful.

I was an active, healthy man and a fireman for Pete’s sake. It wasn’t until I became a father that my perception of the need for sun protection changed. Our family photographer, Tracy Callahan, launched the Polka Dot Mama Melanoma Foundation after being diagnosed with skin cancer. I recognized her efforts to raise awareness about the importance or early detection and prevention. She encouraged me to make an appointment with a dermatologist. I went out of support more than anything.

On May 20th, in a quick 15-minute appointment I had one mole on my back biopsied and was sent on my way as the doctor assured me that everything should be fine. Four days later a nurse called and things began to change quickly. The biopsy was malignant, and my doctor was scheduling an appointment at the University of North Carolina.

“Firefighters are diagnosed with melanoma at younger ages—an average of 42 compared with 64 for the U.S. population.”
– The Skin Cancer Foundation

While I was still recovering from this news, the phone range again. It was the oncology department advising me to come in as soon as possible. I was going to an oncologist. A doctor who treats cancer. As I sat in my appointment the next day listening to the doctor use words like “excision”, “margins”, “sentinel lymph nodes”, “out of work for weeks”, and last but not least “cancer”, the realization and shock that I was in trouble really started to sink in.

After spending the Memorial Day holiday with my family and five-year-old son, I went in for surgery on June 7, 2016 to have the cancer removed. It all happened in the course of a morning and I was sent home heavily bandaged with a drain tube in my side, an abdominal binder wrapped around me, and NO idea what was next.

All I could do was try to rest and recover while I waited for the doctor to call and let me know if they got all the cancer. For days I just prayed and between prayers, I would cry over the life I could lose and what my family’s future would look like without me. Yes, when faced with your own mortality, career firefighters cry. When I finally got word that I was in the clear I wanted to scream from the rooftops! I immediately shared the news with my friends, family and coworkers, all of whom had been so encouraging and supportive.

I owed my life to Tracy Callahan and Polka Dot Mama. She got me to get checked. She saved this stubborn fireman’s life. Literally. What shocked me was that she was the only source of the information I needed to survive. Tracy was the only one that made me aware of the dangers of skin cancer. I wanted to make sure my friends and family were safe. I wanted to protect my firefighting brothers and sisters from skin cancer.

“Men are more likely to die of melanoma than women. This is true at any age.”
– American Academy of Dermatology

Cancer is not a new word around the firehouse, we are exposed to some of the most toxic carcinogens known to man. Firefighters experience cancer-related deaths at a 14 percent higher rate than the U.S. general public. We often focus on our lungs, or prostate, but our largest organ is our skin, and it absorbs everything. As fellow firefighter Mark Rine discovered when he was diagnosed with terminal stage 4 melanoma, occupational cancer is real.

Organizations like the Firefighter Cancer Support Network are working to remind firefighters of the importance of taking steps to protect themselves on and off the job. I’m doing my best to help spread the word wherever I can. I now bear the scars to show what not being sun safe can do to your body. I’m certain that the people around me, especially my colleagues, are sick of hearing me get on them about being sun safe and wearing protective clothing AND sunscreen. But you know what? If I save just one life, just one, it will have been completely worth it.

Story originally shared by Polka Dot Mama on June 23, 2016.

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