Mike O’Reagan, diagnosed at 44

I’m a firefighter in Fall River, Mass., and over the course of 10 years, two of the guys in my truck company had lymphoma — my buddy Jimmy and the guy who drove our truck. My dad was a firefighter, too, and he has had kidney cancer and melanoma.

When I realized we were at an increased risk for cancer, I started hammering the guys to wash their gear and clean the trucks. The harmful chemicals we are exposed to during fires need to be cleaned off to limit continued exposure.

Previously, I had washed my gear once between 1999 and 2010, and after I washed it, it weighed 25 pounds less. And I had to wash it about half a dozen times to get it clean.

With all this on my radar, I knew something was wrong when I noticed a bump on the side of my face. It was on my jawline, underneath my ear, right where your sideburns come down.

Because of the guys who were diagnosed in my truck company, I had made a habit of checking for swelling in spots that are common indicators of lymphoma—neck, armpits, groin.

This bump almost felt like a bee sting. It was a couple days before Thanksgiving, and my doctor wasn’t open over the holiday weekend, so I went to see him on Monday.

“Firefighters are the world’s best caregivers and the world’s worst patients. We think we’re superheroes and that cancer is not going to happen to us, but it does.”

I had a CT scan about a week after I first noticed the bump, and it had already doubled in size. After more appointments and tests, they figured out that it was grade 3B follicular lymphoma.

If I had waited a week or two to go to the doctor, or if I had ignored it, I’d be dead—no ifs, ands, or buts. This cancer doesn’t go away, and my lymphoma will come back, but until then, I’m here to make sure that young firefighters become old firefighters.

I want our guys to pay attention to their health changes and get to the doctor, and to clean their gear and the trucks when they’re on the job. Even when they’re exhausted after fighting a fire all night, they have to take the time to clean their stuff, take a shower, and get all those toxins off.

For a lot of firefighters, the appointments and tests we need to diagnose and treat cancer aren’t covered by our insurance. I just paid $300 for another test to make sure I didn’t have kidney or bladder cancer. To me, it’s worth it to pay that money and know.

Firefighters are the world’s best caregivers and the world’s worst patients. We think we’re superheroes and that cancer is not going to happen to us, but it does. My doctor told me that you can develop cancer after one exposure (during a fire).

You don’t want your kids and your family to watch you die. The part of firefighters that makes us brave enough to ignore danger and run into burning buildings also makes us ignore the risks and signs of cancer.

We see risk as part of the job and expect it to happen. But we have to take care of ourselves and each other the way we take care of everybody else. If we do that, we’ll be okay.


  • bump on face that felt like a bee sting

FREE Online Learning for Firefighters

laptop and phone

The platform includes our 3 Steps Detect training along with 10 short lessons covering topics such as compiling your medical history, identifying and tracking symptoms, and how to prepare for doctor appointments. Firefighters can access the platform by clicking the link below.