When Cancer Strikes in Your Department

Firefighters are making changes, but diagnoses continue hitting close to home

Awareness of the cancer epidemic among firefighters has received a great deal of attention in recent years. Firefighters are changing habits and taking action to protect themselves from their higher cancer risks. Ongoing research continues to help us understand better ways to reduce our exposures to carcinogens. I am impressed by the firefighters who are aggressive about acquiring and sharing this important information.

Firefighter Sarah Fox. (Photo by Rich Beauchesne.)

Firefighter Sarah Fox. (Photo by Rich Beauchesne.)

While teaching cancer awareness and prevention courses across the county, I have seen departments big and small implementing recommended practices. Our brothers and sisters are better protected today because of these efforts, but firefighters everywhere are still facing cancer diagnoses. If a member of your department is diagnosed with cancer, are you prepared?

I look back to 2007 when Firefighter Sarah Fox, pregnant with twins at the time, told us she had cancer. Sarah’s cancer had a large impact on our department, and we all became more educated during Sarah’s four-year battle with cancer.

The helmet decal that was created for Sarah.

Firefighters are great at helping in a crisis, but how can we know what we are doing for our cancer-stricken friends is helping? How do we talk to them about such a difficult diagnosis? What do they really need from their brothers and sisters and the department? Even with today’s improved survival rates, a cancer diagnosis can feel like a death sentence. Your thoughtful support can help make a fellow firefighter’s journey a bit less difficult.

How to Help

Here are a few ways you can prepare yourself to help someone who’s sharing dire news. First, take a moment to absorb their news yourself. Use this time to understand your own feelings. Time enables you to focus on what is happening to your friend and concentrate on his or her emotional and physical needs–not your own.

Listen. Going back to when Sarah and I spoke about her cancer, I gave advice and told her it was going to be OK. What I didn’t know, or hear at first, was that her type of cancer was likely not curable. As I started to listen, and learn, I became aware of how much my words were more about me working on my fears for her and less about her own. Understand that this is an emotional time. Don’t judge. Avoid being the cheerleader. Simply sit and listen to his or her feelings and concerns. Give advice only when asked for it. Remember, your friend is likely having strong emotional swings. The “you will be fine” line we often use when we hear frightening news is not a recommended way to start a conversation.

Above: The play structure for Sarah’s kids built by her brothers and sisters in the fire service. (Photo by Harold Buzzell.) Below: Sarah’s Lieutenant Dennis watches her children. (Photo by author.)

Above: The play structure for Sarah’s kids built by her brothers and sisters in the fire service. (Photo by Harold Buzzell.) Below: Sarah’s Lieutenant Dennis watches her children. (Photo by author.)

Above: The play structure for Sarah’s kids built by her brothers and sisters in the fire service. (Photo by Harold Buzzell.) Below: Sarah’s Lieutenant Dennis watches her children. (Photo by author.)

Conversation. I never felt that I had the right words. I eventually found the most important conversations were the ones that started with what made Sarah happiest: her children. This opening would lead to other conversations and the opportunity to discuss the more difficult things. It even led us to learn that she had been planning to build a play structure for her children, something she wished she could still do. What did we do? We built the play structure for the family, of course.

Advice. Advice can be welcome, but try to avoid giving advice unless asked for it. “You should try this” suggestions are intended to help, but the information can be overwhelming. Give them the space to focus on what is happening within their world.

Compliments. Give honest compliments, such as, “You look well rested today.” Support the feelings they are having. If they are having a bad day, let it be; don’t try to change the subject.

Regrets. Refrain from talking about past behaviors that may be related to the cancer, such as not using self-contained breathing apparatus religiously, smoking, drinking, etc. People can feel guilty about such things.

Support. Support the firefighter’s treatment decisions. Everyone makes choices about how to approach their treatments–support them. You may not feel like it’s the best approach, but it’s not your choice and not your fight. Respect what they are doing no matter what your opinion is.

Be proactive. Be specific about the help you can offer. Avoid saying, “Let me know what you need.” With Sarah, I soon learned she was never going to ask for help. Like all firefighters, she was proud and didn’t want to bother anyone. With time, and when we started listening, we learned that we could help by saying things such as, “We can give you rides to the hospital,” “I will be over to mow the lawn,” and “Let us run the family business so your husband can spend time with you.” This approach helped us build a large support network for Sarah and her family that lasted several years. It gave hundreds of people the chance to be caregivers. We learned that the big strong guys in the firehouse could babysit the twins. We did help run the family business. Over time, it became easy to find ways to help, and it was therapeutic for our members to be able to help our sister.

Normalcy. On the other hand, do keep things normal. We often feel helpless and step up to help. Don’t overdo it and take over all the everyday tasks that make things feel normal for our friends. Respect their wishes to continue their normal routines. Sarah carried on with everyday life for a long time. There came a time when she could see we were there to help and started asking for assistance with some everyday tasks. Of course, then we stepped up to help in every way possible, just like firefighters across the country and around the world do for their loved ones.

Visit. Cancer can feel isolating. Take some time and visit. Visits can be a welcome distraction, bringing them back to a time before the cancer became a major focus. There are a few things to consider about visiting. Always call and schedule your visit. This enables them to pick a time that works within their day. We can also help by talking to their caretakers and giving them a break, too. Shorter and more frequent visit are better than long, infrequent ones. Remember, sometimes just being there and carrying on a conversation is enough. When leaving, talk about when you will be back. Don’t be afraid to touch, hug, or shake hands.

Gifts/fundraising. When Sarah was diagnosed, we looked for ways to help her financially. Like many firefighter families, we have a great extended support network. Our network of firefighters created a helmet decal fundraising enterprise that would support her family for several years. The fundraising campaign was a lot of work, but it was rewarding for everyone involved. You don’t need to take it to that level. Learn what is needed for support first, then find ways to help.

Small gifts can be the most useful. Gift cards, comfortable clothing, stamped postcards, snacks, pictures, movies, audio books, a journal, soft washcloths, and other things that can make life simpler are always nice. Remember the caretakers, too; they have a demanding job and need some support as well. Finally, when you give any gift, remind them there is no need for a thank-you note of any kind; take that obligation off their plate right away.

Additional Resources

There are great resources available. The Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN) provides assistance to firefighters and their families following a cancer diagnosis. They have wonderful people who act as peer-to-peer mentors and supporters. Many FCSN mentors are firefighters who have survived cancer themselves, so they have a unique perspective to share with newly diagnosed firefighters. FCSN services are available at no charge to all active and retired brothers, sisters, and their families. You can learn more at firefightercancersupport.net.

The American Cancer Society also has wonderful resources for cancer patients, caretakers, and supporters. You can find them at cancer.org. Use these resources to guide you when giving support and encouragement.

Unfortunately, Sarah lost her battle with cancer in 2011. We learned a great deal and did some great things during the time we supported her. Sadly, we needed to put that knowledge into action again a few days later to support another member, Jeff Bokum.

I hope these tips will help you be more comfortable about being there for members facing a cancer diagnosis. Remain positive, be supportive, listen to their needs, and help where you can. Your support will go a long way toward making their journey, no matter the outcome, as comfortable as possible.


– American Cancer Society, “How to Be a Friend to Someone with Cancer,” (n.d.), retrieved September 13, 2017, from www.cancer.org/treatment/understanding-your-diagnosis/talking-about-cancer/how-to-be-a-friend-to-someone-with-cancer.html.

– CancerCare, ““What Can I Say to a Newly Diagnosed Loved One?” (n.d.), retrieved September 13, 2017, from www.cancercare.org/publications/104-what_can_i_say_to_a_newly_diagnosed_loved_one#.

By Russell Osgood

Russell Osgood is a 25-year veteran of the fire service and has been with Portsmouth (NH) Fire Department for the past 15 years. He is the longtime New Hampshire state director for the Firefighter Cancer Support Network. As a staff instructor for the New Hampshire Fire Academy, Osgood coordinates the statewide cancer awareness and prevention program. He also teaches in the Firefighter 1 and 2 programs as well as the IAFF Fire Ground Survival Program.

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