In late 2014, Eric Wirtz, a firefighter for the Boston Fire Department, lost his 64-year-old mother to pancreatic cancer. During that time he had been experiencing pain in his lower right back and hip area and frequent bouts of flu-like symptoms. Eric says that overall he “just did not feel too good.” Little did he know he was about to face his own battle with cancer. Tests of Eric’s lower abdominal area revealed a large tumor that were inflamed lymph nodes in his hip area. He was diagnosed with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, the most common sub-type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in January 2015 and began treatment shortly thereafter.
Eric received treatment at Mass General Yawkey Cancer Center and describes his oncology team as “remarkable.” Within a month of his diagnosis, he began six months of a therapy known as R-CHOP, a standard treatment for NHL that spreads throughout the body and kills cancer cells, combined with an experimental drug. While this treatment worked for most of Eric’s cancer, there were still signs of cancer in his right hip and lower abdomen. Subsequently, he began a three-month chemotherapy regimen called R-ICE. After two sessions, Eric learned he was cancer-free. Despite the good news, he continued with the last treatment for “safe measure” and immediately started a 20-day cycle of radiation.
Upon completion of his radiation, Eric underwent a stem cell transplant using his own cells and spent nearly three weeks recovering in the hospital. A few months after he returned home, he was given the opportunity to take an experimental drug designed to keep his disease from returning.
Multiple studies have shown that firefighters are at an increased risk for different types of cancer due to the smoke and hazardous chemicals they are exposed to in the line of duty. Eric is committed to helping The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) spread awareness about firefighters’ increased risk for cancer and steps they can take to reduce that risk. LLS is supporting research to investigate the connection between exposure to toxic smoke, such as what occurred on 9/11 and cancer.
When reflecting upon his journey Eric says, “mentally it was tough, especially during the transplant. I pulled through because of my strong family and the support system they were. They were sad about my diagnosis but positive of a cure.”
Six months after his stem cell transplant, Eric says he needed to “get back to reality” and returned to work at the fire department. Eric has been cancer-free for four years but continues to experience some minor, residual effects from his treatment, but notes “it’s nothing to complain of. I am grateful for health, family and good friends. Life is a blessing.”
To learn more about LLS’s resources and information about firefighters and cancer risks, click here.