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Dispatches: October 2014

I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I haven’t had to (and God willing, won’t ever have to) deal with a breast-cancer scare, or any other kind of cancer scare for that matter.

September 24, 2014 
By Jennifer Grigg

I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I haven’t had to (and God willing, won’t ever have to) deal with a breast-cancer scare, or any other kind of cancer scare for that matter.

Members of my family have fought, and lost, the battle with the dreaded c-word, but I wasn’t there to see the daily struggles that so many loved ones have had the unfortunate experience to witness. I guess I’m lucky in that respect, too.

But I wasn’t totally oblivious to what was going on; I would hear updates on their condition from other family members, nodding in agreement at the severity of it all, and wondering why cancer exists and why it’s so often incurable, especially in this day and age of technological advancements.

I wonder now if I waited until the last minute to write this column because I really didn’t want to delve into this topic. I discussed it with my husband (whose mother passed away earlier this year from cancer), and realized that I avoid talking and reading about cancer because I don’t want to think about it.


I admit to being ignorant about many things cancer related. I don’t know the difference between chemotherapy and radiation treatment. I don’t understand exactly what cancer does to a body, or the cells in your body, except to damage them, often beyond repair. I also don’t know if positive thinking is enough to help someone beat cancer, or why cancer takes some lives and not others. I don’t know which cancers are the worst types, or which are the “best.” I heard someone say recently that a certain type of cancer has the highest survival rate. It seemed to me, if you were going to get cancer, this would be the type to get.

You don’t get to choose what type of cancer you get. But is it possible that we are inadvertently creating the conditions in our body for cancer to exist based on the lifestyles we chose? Studies show that certain behaviours tend to cause certain types of cancer; smoking leads to lung cancer, too much time in the sun can lead to skin cancer, and – the one that should be of utmost concern – fire fighting can be linked to all kinds of cancer.

That last one scares me the most, and it’s the one I probably have tried hardest not to think about. It’s something that has been gaining attention in the media and the fire service due to the spotlight on presumptive legislation – something else that I know very little about.

I recall one training night at our fire hall when the captain spoke about hydrogen cyanide and its presence in virtually every fire to which we respond, along with the importance of wearing BA during overhaul and keeping ourselves protected. The thought of a chemical that can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin rattled me at the time, but it eventually slipped to the back of my mind. I am careful to wear a pack during overhaul, but I’m sure there are other situations in which we are guilty of not protecting ourselves fully. Is it because we just don’t think it will happen to us?

In a conversation with the same captain while writing this, he told me that dangerous readings of hydrogen cyanide were present at training grounds similar to the one we often use, which used the same materials in the burn buildings: straw and lumber.

I must pause for a moment to wrap my head around the magnitude of what I’m learning while writing this column, which serves as evidence to my reluctance to dig into this topic. As ignorant or obtuse as I choose to be about the whole cancer thing, it’s obvious that awareness is key. Smart firefighters protect themselves.

Other research led me to stumble across a female firefighter on a Facebook group who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and was scheduled for a double mastectomy in the next few days. She had just turned 38. I wanted to comment in the group, but struggled with the words. Eventually, I wrote “sending thoughts and prayers.” At the time, my words seemed kind of lame, insignificant and small because they didn’t come close to conveying what I truly felt for this woman I’ve never met.

Later that day, I received notification that she “liked” my comment. I smiled to myself. Maybe it wasn’t insignificant after all.

The same comment thread from this woman’s post led me to another Facebook page, FirefighterCancerSupportNetwork, so I thought that may be another good resource for this column. It turned out to be the Ohio chapter, and I wondered if there was a Canadian chapter, but before I got any further, a post on the page caught my attention. It said, “Cancers among Ground Zero Workers Skyrocketing,” and went on to say that “more than 2,500 Ground Zero rescuers and responders have come down with cancer and a growing number are seeking compensation for their illnesses…”

Something else to wrap my head around.

As I said to my captain, I understand that there is a certain amount of risk inherent in fire fighting, but how much of it is avoidable. Are we doing enough to protect ourselves?

Think about your family at the next call. Protect yourself. Protect them. Protect each other. Be proactive about it and drop the it-won’t-happen-to-me mindset. I’m sure the people who are currently diagnosed would tell you the same, because it has happened to them.

To all the people who are living with cancer, I genuinely send thoughts and healing prayers your way. I hope that you win this unthinkable battle.

Jennifer Mabee-Grigg has been a volunteer with the Township of Georgian Bay Fire Department in Ontario since 1997. Email her at and follow her on Twitter at @jenmabee

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