Cancer affects one in two people during their lifetime; it touches all our lives. Following the deaths of four NSWFF employees in the month of May, Greg and Bruce decided to speak out urging members: "Don't be the tough guy. Be the person who actually cares for themselves".
Up until 2011 when Greg was diagnosed with colon cancer he was busy getting on with his life.
"I have never had any issues with my body until that point," he said. A non-smoker, he was extremely active, fit and health conscious.
"I was eating all the right food, exercising regularly. I would swim, surf, bike ride and go walking pretty regularly. When I was in Commuter Crime I was walking through the trains a lot too, with all the gear that we've got to carry around."
As testament to this, Greg said he had over 1,600 hours of sick leave; he had virtually used no sick leave since joining the force in 1995.
Greg loved his job at VKG, which he'd come to after working at Sutherland, Hurstville, Kogarah, Miranda stations and a 12-month stint at Airwing. The only problem was the long commute.
"If I look back, I was getting a bit tired and fatigued. I was commuting to Sydney from Wollongong and was putting that tiredness down on the commutes, the shift work and the day-night shift pattern that police do. I was writing it off to that," he said.
Then one night while having dinner, Greg began to feel queasy, as if he was getting food poisoning. A trip to the GP didn't resolve the issue so he went to the emergency department of the local hospital. There, an x-ray revealed a large tumor blocking his bowel. He was operated on the next afternoon. Greg took the devastating news stoically, determining with his wife, Leah, and young son to fight back.
"It was a bit of a curve ball that life throws at you and you've got to deal with it," he said.
Ironically earlier that year Greg had been given the all-clear for duties at the Airwing. The warning signs were so subtle he wrote them off as being due to the nature of police work. "I had no idea I had cancer and if untreated I technically would have died within a week. It was a very fast and aggressive cancer."
Whilst the surgery was successful, Greg's ordeal was not over. Some of his lymph nodes had tested positive and Greg began chemotherapy in January 2012, which led to a rare and potentially fatal reaction.
He explained, "On the 15th of April, my heart stopped as a result of the chemo drug; acute cardio toxicity is the official term. That's when the chemo drug becomes toxic in your system, like an overdose. I was swimming in the ocean at the time. Basically I drowned as well. The odds were certainly against me." It was an awful experience for Greg's wife, Leah, who was there at the time. She recalled, "I had to bear the brunt of it. It was pretty horrendous, very traumatic. I had lost my mother to breast cancer only 18 months earlier."
Fortunately, an off-duty life guard came to Greg's rescue. He was resuscitated and rushed to hospital with Leah alerting doctors about his condition.
Greg's condition was critical for awhile. He was in a coma for 10 days and on life support for most of that time. He had to be defibrillated three times but once the drug levels dropped, his heart went back to a normal rhythm.
"I' m pretty lucky to be here today," Greg said. "Every doctor I've spoken to about it considers I'm a miracle." Today, after strenuous testing Greg's heart has been declared normal and he is determined to enjoy his good health without taking it for granted.
He is also keen to alert other police to stop and take stock of their health. The Aussie male mantra is - she'll be right, mate."
Often operational police will dismiss warning signs due to the physical demands and stresses of police work and shift work.
Greg said, "If you're feeling a bit fatigued fairly regularly, slower to bounce back, a bit under the weather
like you're getting a fever, cold or flu coming on and it doesn't develop, then check it out. Obviously do so if you've got any family history of cancer.
There are medical checks to try and work out what's going on. If you get detected early your survival chances are much higher."
Leah agreed, "If we can save one person's life or stop someone and their family going through what we have been through, then it's worth it."
A RESCUER IS RESCUED
For Kogarah Police Shift Supervisor Sergeant Bruce Jarvis, 25 July 2008 will be etched in his memory. A police officer since 1994, he had worked at the inner-city station of Leichhardt before transferring to St George.
At about 115pm that Friday, he heard over police radio that a 4WD vehicle towing a boat trailer had careened out of control and plunged into the Cooks River, near the Kyeemagh boat ramp. The vehicle was sinking fast with the driver, who had suffered a blackout, still trapped inside.
Bruce drove to the nearby bridge and realizing that police divers were still 30 minutes away, he availed himself of some scuba diving gear from a nearby shop. Whilst a strongly built man, his diving skills were nevertheless somewhat rusty.
Moreover the waters of the Cooks River in winter were freezing, but Bruce didn't hesitate. Wearing cargo pants, a t-shirt and basic scuba gear he dived in and located the vehicle. Unfortunately, by this time the driver was already deceased.
After wrestling with the car doors, Bruce was eventually able to free the man's body, and convey it to the surface. He later received an award for the rescue.
This tragic incident unexpectedly saved Bruce's life. "I tried to save a 39-year-old and ended up saving a 37-year-old policeman instead," he later told the media.
After the rescue Bruce began experiencing pain in his ears and went to his doctor for a checkup. Tests were carried out and revealed a brain tumor, the size of a golf ball at the base of his brain.
"I found my tumor because I tried to do a rescue and that rescue made me ill," he explained. "Prior to that I had no signs or symptoms of illness that I was aware of."
The surgery to remove Bruce's tumor was carried out by renowned neurosurgeon Charlie Teo. It was a delicate and difficult six-hour operation.
"I was in hospital, initially for a week. Then I had to learn to walk and get my coordination and balance back.
As a result I lost the hearing in my right ear," he said.
" My tumor wasn't cancerous. But when I had my thyroid out last year, 3 out of 4 tests came back positive to cancer. It wasn't until I had the thyroid removed that they gave me the all clear for it."
Sergeant Jarvis' second serious health scare made him pause in his busy life and take stock.
"When they told me it looked like I was going to be given radiation and be treated for thyroid cancer it really made me stop and assess how much we don't look after ourselves. The pressures of work, shift work, poor diet and lack of sleep combined with all the pressures of life basically don't assist us in staying well," he said.
Bruce admits that he, like many others, takes their good health for granted or are simply unwilling to discuss personal topics.
"People are too embarrassed; they ignore bowel bleeding. Blokes don't talk about prostate cancer. It's almost like a taboo. But essentially we're all human. We are either male or female but we all go through the same thing."
Having been through the mill himself, Bruce urges everyone to take action if feeling unwell as early intervention can be a way of avoiding massive invasive surgery.
"Don't be the tough guy. Be the person who actually cares for themselves. We spend so much of our careers caring for other people, we put ourselves second. We really need to make sure that we are well and look after ourselves primarily.
"Spend the time to actually have a look on the cancer council website and make sure you're aware of what checks you really need to do. If you notice any bleeding, make sure you get to your local GP and get it checked. Don't ignore it," he said
REDUCING CANCER RISK
The Cancer Council NSW website www.cancercouncil.com.au has a wealth of information and fact sheets about different cancers for men and women, screening tests and support services. The council provided the following information regarding prevention and early detection of cancer.
At least one in three cancer cases are preventable and the number of cancer deaths could be reduced significantly by choosing a cancer smart lifestyle.
More than 13,000 cancer deaths each year are due to smoking, sun exposure, poor diet, alcohol, inadequate exercise or being overweight.
There are some simple steps you can take to minimize your cancer risk. So where do you start? The seven steps to reducing your cancer risk are:
- Quit smoking
- Eat healthy
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Be Sun smart
- Limit alcohol
- Exercise regularly
- Get checked
Men and women should look for:
- lumps, sores or ulcers that don't heal
- coughs that don't go away or show blood, a hoarseness that hangs around
- weight loss that can't be explained
- moles that have changed shape, size or colour, or bleed, or an inflamed skin sore that hasn't healed
- blood in a bowel motion
- persistent changes in toilet habits or urinary problems or changes
Men should also look for:
Women should also look for:
These symptoms are often related to more common, less serious health problems. However, if you notice any unusual changes, or these symptoms persist, visit your doctor.