It was September 11, 2001, when Lorne Miller made a pivotal decision in his life. He wanted to be the person people looked to when they were in trouble. He wanted to be able to help someone in their time of need. And so, the born-and-raised Calgarian would pursue his goals and join the Calgary Fire Department in 2007. 

And although he may be a Calgarian through and through, the 39-year-old firefighter has ties to Airdrie as he is familiar with the city's Deputy Fire Chief Garth Rabel. He said that in his career, he was also part of a group of firefighters that assisted Airdrie's fire crews in the city on a train derailment some years ago. However, today Miller is not battling fires, he is battling a rare type of cancer known as liposarcoma, which develops in the fatty tissue of the body. 

The diagnosis for Miller came in May 2021, after he had gone to see doctors for discomfort in his abdomen. Initially, he assumed that the pain he was experiencing was due to a hernia. 

"Nobody wants to hear that [they have cancer]. That was the furthest thing that was on my mind. The hardest part was knowing that I was going to have to go home and tell my family and that it was going to cause them pain and grief," he said.

Considering the fact that firefighters can be exposed to upwards of 265 known carcinogens in a typical residential structure fire, it wasn't surprising that Miller reflected upon the possibility that his profession may have also put him at more risk of developing cancer. 

"Traditionally, when people think about the dangers firefighters face, it's obviously a fire, right? You're running into burning buildings. But, you're also standing in and around these toxic chemicals for hours," he said. "It was something that I did think about and something that I've spoken to, at length about with my doctors. They would agree that my profession certainly could have led to the situation that I'm in today."

Although there is no definitive proof that his profession is directly linked to cancer diagnosis, according to research by the CDC/National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), studies have shown that firefighters have a 9 per cent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer. 

Miller would undergo surgery a month after his diagnosis. Surgeons removed a volleyball-sized tumour from his abdomen, hoping that this aggressive surgery would stop the spread of cancer. While he would recover physically, he said the mental and emotional recovery would take much longer.

"Cancer makes you instantly aware of time. My line of work did expose me to some of that - especially when you're trying to help people. But it's a whole different story when you're the one in the hot seat and facing that scenario," Miller said. 

In June 2022, he celebrated one year of living cancer-free, but then, just a few months later, a phone call changed everything. After his initial surgery, he and his doctors agreed for him to come in for more routine CT scans. During one of those scans last October, it was found that the liposarcoma had come back. 

"I went into those scans, feeling in some ways in some of the best shape of my life, mentally and physically and then for the scan to reveal that I'm in trouble again; it was hard to hard to process and deal with all over again."

Miller would undergo yet another surgery and would continue his quarterly CT scans with doctors. There is no guarantee that the second surgery has stamped out cancer, but he said he is determined to continue living the best life he can.

"I've learned that we can't take anything with us to the afterlife. I've sat on the runway to the afterlife a couple of times now and there's no checked baggage, and there's no carry-on luggage. It's just you and a one-way ticket out of here," he said. "I've been able to have that flight cancelled a couple of times on me, thankfully. It's just so important to seize the moment that we have right now."

When asked if Miller believes that firefighting departments have done enough in the way of proactively educating their firefighters on the risks of cancer within the profession, he says many things have changed since he started in 2007, but there is always room for improvement. As he reflects on his own diagnosis and what he has been through, he credits the staff at the Tom Baker Centre for their work and expertise. 

And as January, which is Fire Fighter Cancer Awareness Month draws to a close, Miller offered his advice to those who are facing the news he faced.

"I hear you and I understand you, but even with a diagnosis, you can still live a life of gratitude and abundance, despite this disease," he said. "It doesn't have to define you. Your story is not over."

This coming month on Saturday, February 4, World Cancer Day is dedicated to looking ahead and raising awareness of cancer and the combined efforts of all those in the healthcare industries to improve methods of preventing, detecting and treating the disease. Wendy Beauchesne, CEO of the Alberta Cancer Foundation said that Lorne’s story is one of many reminders of the work yet to be done.

"With our World Cancer Day matching campaign, made possible by the generosity of an anonymous donor, we can double our impact and move one step closer to a creating a cancer-free future.”

Between February 2 and 28, all donations up to $25,000 made to the Alberta Cancer Foundation will be matched in honour of World Cancer Day. 

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