Firefighting, Cancer and Physical Fitness

The article you are about to read is written by a “Fireman’s Fireman”, a very experienced firefighter, and a retired City of Ithaca Lieutenant. He is STILL a New York State Fire Academy Instructor where he has trained dozens, if not hundreds, of the finest firefighters the state has ever had. He has been a mentor for the owners of Thin Line Fitness since they met him in 2009, and a continued inspiration for many more since. This is a true story of how a brother, even through a battle with cancer, STILL trains the future brothers and sisters of our career field, as well as gives constant talks to many fire departments on cancer prevention. This article should truly motivate you, give you the sense that there really are NO EXCUSES, and give you the kick in the butt you need to get to your next workout.

Firefighting, Cancer and Physical Fitness

I started my fire service career 43 years ago as a volunteer in a small village department in central New York State, called Homer.  I was 18 years old and following in my fathers footsteps as he had been a volunteer in The City of Cortland Fire Department and joined Homer Fire Department when we moved there.

Of course I was young, and eager to fight fires!  But in those days we didn’t have the personal protective equipment (PPE) that we do today. Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) were really just coming into play.  Most of the older “seasoned” firefighters would go into a burning building without them.  I personally didn’t find breathing the smoke an enjoyable experience, so I started early on wearing the SCBA.

I was also fortunate to take a civil service test and get a position as a career firefighter with the City of thinlinefit 1Ithaca Fire Department in 1990.  I retired on my 56th birthday in  2012 as a Lieutenant with just over 20 years of service.

I was really only an average teenager as far as physical exercise went.  I didn’t play any sports, so my exercise consisted of what ever walking I did and occasionally riding my bike, or taking a hike.

Today at 61, it’s a much different story to tell.  At 58, I was finishing my last year of a five year term as Fire Chief, and on the day of  the elections I was told that I had prostate cancer, and that it was the worst type of prostate cancer.  It was definitely a life altering day.  And the cancer is most likely a result of me being a firefighter.

I kept the diagnosis a secret from the Fire Department and my friends for two weeks until the new Fire Chief was sworn in.  The only person that knew was my father. The evening of the banquet some close friends had surmised that something was wrong with my health.  That’s when I let them know what was going on.

I didn’t have a choice but to have my prostate removed to try and contain the cancer.

That was in June.  The surgery was robotic so hospital time was only a day and a half.  Total recovery time was about two months.

I was put on a hormone treatment to help suppress my testosterone,  which is what prostate cancer feeds on.  I am still on that treatment, however it has a number of side effects that I’m not happy with. Weight gain, loss of muscle mass, fatigue, and hot flashes are the worst ones. So I decided I needed to try and do something about them as best as I could, so I joined a local CrossFit affiliate at the encouragement of some friends.

That was two years ago, and I’m so glad I did it.  The variations in workouts and the encouragement of the other members of the “Box” are absolutely amazing. I initially started working out three days a week, Monday, Wednesday, and Fridays at 06:30.  At the same time I would generally walk two days a week and take two days off.  As things progressed, I still do the three days a week at structured work outs at CrossFit, and have progressed to either hiking anywhere between three and five miles, walking three to five miles, or bicycling between 12 and 15 miles.  My longest bike ride was in the Adirondack Mountains last year and that was 25 miles.

thinlinefit 2My greatest accomplishments are two 9-11 Memorial Stair Climbs in full turn out gear. Each completed in approximately 45 minutes with the equivalent of 110 flights of stairs.  Also I competed in the 2016 and 2017 CrossFit World Games and this year I finished 272 out of 690 in my class world wide and 227 out of 575 in the US.

I have also progressed to the point that I can now run just

over 3 miles in about 27 minutes. Something that I couldn’t do prior to the surgery and CrossFit.  One of the benefits of all this is that I went from 220 pounds to 175 pounds and body fat went from 30.2 to 19.8, hydration went from 50.9% to 58.5% and BMI went from 28% to 23.5%.

I see three different doctors, a Urologist, a Radiation Oncologist and a Medical Oncologist all in regards to the prostate cancer. They each have told me that for what they have put me thru with surgery, radiation, and the drugs, that I am in the best physical shape of anyone my age that they have seen in a long time.

At this point the prognosis of the cancer is that it will be a chronic “illness” that I will be taking medication for for the rest of my life.  I really contribute that to the physical fitness that I decided to do to primarily lose the weight that the medications had put on me.  Obviously there were some other good side effects of the exercise change that I wasn’t aware were taking place.

A part of the physical fitness was a change in diet.  I cut out beer (well for the most part), bread, pasta, thinlinefit 3and sweets. I started eating more vegetables, eating three regular meals a day, with a snack in the morning and a snack in the afternoon.  I can’t say that I don’t splurge from time to time, but that’s a reward in a sense for what I am able to keep going in terms of physical fitness.

I teach new recruit firefighters at our state fire academy, and last year started running with them the days that they run each week. This year I started working out with them on the days they don’t run.  Makes me feel good that a 61 year old can keep up with, and sometimes be ahead of the “kids” that are in their early 20’s and 30’s.

So even though you may be dealt a crappy hand with some medical issue, it doesn’t mean that you can’t do some form of physical fitness to help with that condition and make an improvement to your body and your health.  I know it made a HUGE difference for me.  And I’m still active in the Homer Fire Department.

Mahlon Irish Jr.

An “OLD” Firefighter

To learn more about Mahlon and his talks on cancer as a firefighter, contact Thin Line Fitness.

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Posted in Fire Service, Firefighter Health, Fitness.