SCOTTS MILLS, Ore. (KOIN) — Ron Bielenberg may have been one of the youngest firefighters ever hired by Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue. He started when he was 20 and spent the next 23 years there.
“Oh, it’s the best job in the world,” the now-57-year-old told KOIN 6 News. “You get to go out and help people.”
He took an injury-related retirement 14 years ago. But recently he was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, and his family said doctors believe it was caused by exposure to carcinogens 20 to 30 years ago.
From the CDC
“Researchers found that more than two-thirds of firefighters – 68 percent – develop cancer, compared to about 22 percent for the general population, no matter the race or gender.”
“Fire fighters in our study had a greater number of cancer diagnoses and cancer-related deaths. These were mostly digestive, oral, respiratory, and urinary cancers.”
“Exposure to asbestos while fire fighting is the most likely explanation for this.”
Ron got a cold in December and in February went to the ER because he was having trouble breathing.
They said doctors first believed he had asthma or a heart problem, but his wife Cheryl didn’t believe that. She insisted on the CT scan.
She said a medical assistant questioned her request, but she persisted. “Well, your doctor doesn’t know what it is, the cardiologist doesn’t know what it is and what I’m learning on the internet is we need a CT to diagnose it.”
“Fortunately, my wife Cheryl talked the doctor into a chest CT scan, which is the only way they found the tumor,” Bielenberg told KOIN 6 News. “At that time the tumor was the size of a baseball and it had kind of crossed across my lungs.”
“I didn’t really qualify for (the CT scan) because I didn’t smoke,” he said. “Had I smoked I would have immediately got a chest CT.”
Once it was diagnosed, he started radiation and chemotherapy immediately.
But the cancer has spread into his brain and multiple lymph nodes, he said.
“I’m just staying positive,” he said. “You know, life is what it is.”
Cheryl, though, said one of the reasons they wanted to talk with KOIN 6 News is to help others. “We don’t want other families to have to go through this.”
She said there needs “to be more testing done for firemen. We shouldn’t send these people who are so willing to risk their lives into these buildings if we’re not going to take care of them afterwards.”
Ron said he thinks there is more cancer testing and awareness today but when he was a firefighter “there was very little cancer screening or, you know, how to prevent cancer. I mean, I know how to keep a roof from falling in … but when 60% of your deaths are from cancer and not roofs falling in, then maybe 60% of your training should be directed towards cancer.”
Back in the 1980s, he said, they didn’t have good equipment. Ron said for the first 8 or 10 years on the job, the breathing apparatus they used was 25 years old.
“The only thing I’d change is would have been to get more proactive into developing new equipment,” he said.
But Cheryl wants to change things going forward. Ron has a rare cancer and she said his doctor said it may be from a carcinogen he got 20 years ago.
“There has to be some way to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Ron and Cheryl — high school sweethearts who will celebrate their 37th anniversary on May 31 — have 2 grown children and 6 grandkids. One of their children is also a firefighter. Ryan Bielenberg is the 3rd-generation of firefighters in the family, following Ron and Ron’s dad, Tony.
To his fellow firefighters, including his own son, Ron said if you notice a cough or are having trouble breathing, get aggressive. Let your doctors know what you need and get a chest CT scan early.
And be your own advocate.
He hopes “this saves more lives so that these people can spend time with their family… It’s just there has to be more awareness.”