Firefighter Cancer Awareness: Austin’s Story

What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

August 13, 2020.

It was another annual physical for Truckee Meadows Hazmat Technician Austin Stowe. The only difference was his department had just added an ultrasound of the thyroid and carotids to the list. Austin had barely had more than a bad cold his whole life, so he never gave these routine check-ups much thought, and this year was no exception.

“I’ve always been bullet proof,” Austin said.

Even when the ultrasound uncovered a small cyst on his thyroid, Austin remained unphased. It wasn’t big after all, and he felt fine. A quick follow-up with his primary physician and this would all be over.

But it wasn’t. Austin’s doctor recommended a fine needle aspiration to figure out exactly what the abnormal-looking cyst was.

October 6, 2020

Austin had the recommended procedure, and the pathologist told him there was a 50/50 the cyst was cancerous. Austin liked his odds. He filed a work comp claim, however, it would only be accepted if it was 100% cancer. Still unphased, Austin scheduled surgery to remove the cyst rationalizing that $3,000 was worth it for a true diagnosis.

“I remember thinking that this was going to be an expensive way to remove a cyst,” Austin recalls. “I was 99% confident that I didn’t have cancer.” 

January 8, 2021
Austin woke up from surgery, and the first thing he asked was “do I have a thyroid?” Although he was pretty sure he knew the answer.

But the surgeon shook his head and confirmed that his thyroid had been removed. Austin had cancer. Thyroid papillary carcinoma.

“Waking up after surgery and hearing that the surgeon removed the whole thyroid due to cancer… sucked,” Austin said. “I had a lot of questions.”

What do my treatments look like going forward?” 

What’s my ability to get back to work?”

“Do I have cancer anywhere else?”

As of now, Austin still has many of those questions. The ongoing pandemic has made it difficult to get established with an endocrinologist and be aggressive with treatments, but he does know he does not need chemotherapy at the moment. He has, however, been on medication to help his body figure out how to function without a thyroid, and it has left this young husband and father in very unfamiliar territory.

“I am very uncomfortable in my own skin,” Austin admits. “The medication gives me anxiety, and splitting headaches every day. I can’t sit still. I’m up vacuuming at 7am. My wife loves it.” He laughs.

Austin has not worked a shift since December 31, 2020. The end of a tumultuous year for so many was the beginning of uncertainty for Austin and his family. He has still not been cleared to go back to work while he awaits next steps; something that is not easy for this 14-year veteran. One thing Austin does know is that his thyroid cancer is a direct result from exposure to diesel exhaust.

 “Unfortunately for me, it was a lack of awareness that caused my thyroid cancer. I didn’t know diesel exhaust in such short exposures was that big of a deal,” he said. “Knowing what I know now, I would’ve been more conscientious about not working downwind of running apparatus. I would’ve left the bay doors open to promote air flow when pulling rigs in and out of the bay.”

“Having cancer has made me look at my career and evaluate what I could’ve done differently,” he continues. The good news is that my experience, and the experience of others with similar diagnoses, will help teach future generations so that hopefully cancer becomes less common.” 

Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month may only be in January, but we plan to work year-round to alter the stats for firefighters and their family.

“This profession is inherently dangerous and unfortunately health problems are not uncommon,” Austin said. “The biggest thing I can recommend is to truly take care of your body. Eat healthy food, work out, practice good sleep habits and get established with a physician. Getting routine checkups is crucial to catching health problems early before it’s too late. I never would’ve known I had a small growth on my thyroid without it.”