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Between Alarms: October 2014

This column is dedicated to my mom, who passed away recently after a short battle with cancer.

September 24, 2014
By Arjuna George

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This column is dedicated to my mom, who passed away recently after a short battle with cancer. My writing is by no means a scientific study on cancer or cancer-causing environments; rather, my thoughts here are more of a philosophy for living a healthy life around cancer and in general. 

Life is too short to stress about life, sickness and death. I have witnessed too many friends, family members and firefighters die from cancer. It is heartbreaking that the statistics for surviving cancer have not drastically improved over the years. In fact, the Canadian Cancer Society reports that 29.9 per cent of deaths in Canada are due to cancer. The society also estimates that more than 191,000 new cases of cancer will occur this year alone. Firefighters have an elevated risk for cancers due to our jobs and the environments in which we operate. Some say that firefighters have double the risk of developing cancer compared to other occupations. So, the facts show we are in an extreme danger zone to start with; therefore, finding preventative measures to give us the best shot of a long, successful life are crucial.

I cannot speak from experience of having had cancer, but I believe that living life to its fullest will allow for a more peaceful experience for those who go through cancer and for living life in general. Live with no regrets, and if you have regrets, release them, move on and enjoy life.

We should be taking care of ourselves from Day 1 and taking care of ourselves doesn’t strictly mean physical fitness and healthy eating, but, more importantly, it also means maintaining a healthy mind. Today’s world can be very stressful and the “S word” can kill you in so many ways. Fire fighting is one of the most stressful and traumatic careers to experience, so it is in our best interest to find ways to move through it, live amazing lives and continue to enjoy what we do. Stress can be a silent killer of our passions, which can lead to an end to the best job in the world – fire fighting.

Stress has not been scientifically identified as a direct cause of cancer, but it has proven to be a factor that leads to living an unhealthy lifestyle. A stressful lifestyle is known to lead to cancer-inducing behaviours such as alcoholism, over-eating, and smoking, which have all been proven to be cancer-causing. Stress can also have a profoundly negative effect on the ability to cope with cancer, making you vulnerable for other illnesses.

There are many books on how to manage stress, but I have found one simple ingredient that has allowed me to work in a stressful environment while keeping a healthy lifestyle: taking a break.

I have heard this term from others in the fire service and I agree that everyone should take mini-vacations. Not everyone can afford to take glamorous vacations all the time, and I don’t mean that everyone should do that – all I mean is take time off, time away from your stressful environment to relax and rejuvenate your system. 

I have found that by taking mini-vacations or, as some call them, “mini-retirements,” I can stay more focused and relaxed year-round than by taking a month off at a time. Mini-vacations don’t have to be weeks off – I am talking about a weekend away or a weekend simply releasing the stresses from your job. Frequent mini-vacations will be more mentally rewarding than longer but infrequent breaks. With just a few days away from the normal hustle of life or work, we can quickly re-energize our minds and bodies to effectively handle stress and problems we face day in and day out. In this case, quantity may indeed be better!

Another great addition to your mini-retirement is a digital blackout. A digital blackout – also known as unplugging – is a short time away from email, Internet, texting, and social media, to enjoy the other wonders of life. The problem is that many of us – me included – deal with Nomophobia, which is short for no-mobile-phone phobia – the fear of living without your mobile phone. Studies have shown that, on average, users check their mobile smartphones every six and half minutes. I enjoy being extremely socially connected via social media, as I see great potential – personally and professionally – in the wealth of information available through my phone. I have also recognized that occasionally taking a short digital detox is a healthy decision. Of course you go through withdrawal, but then there is a sense of total relaxation. In today’s world, total relaxation is hard to come by. Use these mini-retirements and digital blackouts to refocus on the things in life that matter – family, friends, and health. 

Many of you probably have faced burn-out or near burn-out. I have; I love my job in the fire service and I love working day and night to make the service better and prepping myself to be the best I can, but this can be a dangerous path, if it is followed without caution and awareness. I am aware that I work at the hall and also at home, but I also now recognize when a short battery boost is required. The beauty with short but frequent reality breaks is that they are brief and you can be back in the saddle quickly.

I challenge you to take a micro-vacation now, hit the reset button, disconnect and reap the immediate rewards to your mental health and productivity. Why wait to fight the cancer battle when you can fight to live a healthy life now?


Arjuna George is a 17-year veteran and the deputy fire chief of Operations on Salt Spring Island, B.C. Email him at ageorge@saltspringfire.com and follow him on Twitter at @AJGeorgefire


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