LUBBOCK, TX - Firefighters are tough. They are trusted to save lives when nobody else can, and put their own lives on the line on a daily basis. So, when faced with their own personal health challenges, stemming from their line of work no less, one might think they would be frustrated. Not Jay Watson.
Watson, 54, worked as a firefighter for the Lubbock Fire Department for nearly three decades.
"I had planned on actually retiring in September of this year," Watson said. September would have marked 30 years. When i got on I told myself I'd make 30."
Instead, he retired one month short of 28 years. A cancer diagnosis on November 21, 2014, changed his life forever. He retired the next year.
"This kind of forced me to retire, because the chemo took probably about 50 to 60 percent of my physical ability away," he said. "My stamina is not real good."
Mucinous adenocarcinoma is a rare type of cancer that affected Watson's digestive system.
Physically, he said he lost about 100 pounds in just a few months. Mentally, he has kept a positive attitude. A walk with him through the fire department administration building filled the halls with greetings from familiar faces.
"A lot of camaraderie with the guys, was something I'll always remember," Watson said. "Worked at several different fire stations throughout the city, saw a lot of things, and it just was a really good time."
Watson acknowledged the dangers of his profession.
"For years, heart attacks was always the number one killer of firefighters, and now cancer is one of the things that's coming up very quick," he told EverythingLubbock.com. "A lot of people don't enjoy talking about it but it doesn't bother me. People need to hear what's going on and need to be open and talk to people about it."
Lieutenant Randy Lammons, an 11 year fire department veteran, has spent hours researching cancer risk in firefighters.
"There's not a member on this fire department that doesn't know somebody that has cancer, either in Lubbock or another department," Lammons said. "It's an epidemic across the fire service."
"Everybody sees these big suits that we wear and they think that we're protected," Lammons explained, adding that the gear protects to a certain degree, but there is more that could be done.
"We have holes in our armor, so to speak, and our skin absorbs these new byproducts of fire," he mentioned.
"For every 5 degree increase in body temperature, your skin is going to be about 400 times more absorbent of these cancers. and they're sticking with us," Lammons said. He recently presented data on cancer risk to department administrators.
"I have had great support from our administration, and we're getting some things done," he said.
Dr. Jehanzeb Riaz, an oncology and hematology specialist with Covenant Medical Group, said decontamination was an important part of cancer prevention.
"Our firefighters are at increased risk from cancers, and they have more exposure to toxic chemicals and other contaminants in the environment, than the general population," Riaz stated. "For some cancers the risk is almost double, like testicular cancer, and mesothilioma which is from exposure to asbestos."
"It used to be a badge of honor, the dirtier your bunker gear, the more you'd fought fire, the more respect you'd earned," said LFR Division Chief Steve Holland. "We're now learning that was a terrible thing to do."
The department has adopted new rules for extra protection, including an additional Nomex hood, and a second set of bunker gear.
Holland said he hoped the new attention on preventing contamination would make a difference.
"(We used to) come in in bunker gear, sit in chair around dinner table or living area in dirty bunker gear and you're putting those carcinogens into that chair. So, after you went and cleaned up put on a fresh uniform, you sat down in that same chair and get back in," he explained. "We don't allow bunker gear in the fire station (living areas) any more."
"On every engine now we carry these wipes, specially developed so when you come out of a fire, take your hood off, and wipe these areas down, you get those carcinogens off of your skin," he added.
Lammons said trucks are washed down with soap, water, and scrub brushes after responding to fires.
"Air packs, truck seats, everything we contaminated on that call is getting scrubbed right then," Lammons added.
"Guys are retiring and they're dying soon after retirement because of the cancer and everything they were exposed to along the way, and not knowing it," Lammons stated. "And we're just trying to prevent that."
Holland said Watson was one of many firefighters, both current and retired, who faced cancer fights.
One recently retired firefighter survived testicular cancer, and "we've got a guy that i went to recruit school with that had early-aged prostate cancer," Holland said. He mentioned others who had colon cancer in their early 40s, and cited a current firefighter who's brain cancer was in remission.
"One of our line of duty deaths a few years ago was a gentleman named Jay Lester who died of a brain tumor," Holland said. Fire Station 12 at 79th Street and Slide Road was named in Lester's memory.
"He was one of the first presumptive disease line of duty deaths for cancer in the state of Texas," he said.
"Guys always want to take care of our own," Holland added, which is why Watson's coworkers raised more than $10,000 to send his entire family on a Disney World vacation.
"Very, very humbling," Watson said. "They've been there from day one, they're still there today."
"I've got guys that drive me down to San Antonio (for treatment) when my wife can't take me," he said. "They're there for me with whatever i need. it's like that every day."
Watson said being retired has allowed him to travel to Colorado to be with his grandchildren, and his family was making plans for another trip this summer to Disneyland in California.
With his positive attitude shining through, he said he had no desire to slow down with his involvement at the fire department, continuing to participate in Fill the Boot fundraisers, and the Firefighters Association State Convention each year.
"Firefighters they just have that mentality that they're not going to quit," he said. "They're there to serve, they're there to help, and you're there in difficult situations, and you just overlook what's going on, and do the best you can."
"I think that same thing has carried through with my cancer," Watson added. "It's not something you want to go through, but it's something you just face every day."
"Somebody asked me one time they said, 'Knowing everything you do now, would you go back and do it again, knowing it was going to happen?' In a heartbeat. Greatest job I ever had," he said as he teared up.
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