RALEIGH, N.C. — The mundane task of preparing his gear never meant so much for Raleigh firefighter John Nickerson.
“This day – as my family, my friends, and my co-workers all know – this was the day I was looking forward to,” Nickerson said.
Nickerson’s been out of work for 15 months after stomach pains led to a diagnosis of testicular germ cell cancer.
“They began to do some imaging and came back and said I had a large tumor next to I believe it was my aorta,” he said.
Nickerson used his faith, family and firefighter support to fight through two surgeries, intense chemotherapy and three stem-cell transplants. While the medical demands were taxing, Nickerson says the mental side was tougher.
“The hardest part was being away from my family and my job,” he said. “The treatments, you don’t feel so good, but just being away from life and watching life continue on.”
Nickerson rejoined the life he loves this week. WRAL Investigates was at the fire station as colleagues welcomed him back.
“It is like a big family reunion just cutting up and joking,” Nickerson said.
Nickerson’s battle is familiar to the firefighting community, which has battled job-related cancers for years. Fortunately, this battle had a happy ending.
“It makes my heart happy,” said Nickerson’s colleague Brett Bailey. “It feels good to see someone finally get a win. So, it’s awesome.”
The chaplain handed over a Bible and fire department leaders came from across the city to celebrate, including Chief Herbert Griffin.
“To have a member come back to serve his community and that impact and what he went through, it’s amazing,” Griffin said.
In recent years, WRAL Investigates revealed the increased cancer risks for firefighters, efforts to reduce hazardous toxins from their equipment and legislation to increase benefits for those impacted by a deadly disease tied to their profession.
Under newly passed legislation, Nickerson did not qualify for the extra care benefits firefighters fought for. He has been with the fire department for less than five years, which is required under the law.
Still, the gravity of his diagnosis is not lost on his work family.
“I constantly read about firefighters passing away,” said Keith Wilder, the Raleigh Fire Department’s Health and Safety Chief. “This particular day is an incredible day for us because it’s a day to celebrate someone who took on this fight and beat it.”
Despite missing out on the extra medical coverage, Nickerson had plenty of support back in the firehouse.
“He wasn’t even covered,” Griffin said. “So, his brothers and sisters would ride for him, substitute so he’d still have a paycheck. That’s amazing to know this man … he has children.”
The firefighter known as “Big John” lost 30 pounds during his treatment. That’s more than offset by the profound gratitude he gained.
“Me being back on this truck is a ton of answered prayers,” Nickerson said. “Having not known whether I’d ever be able to do it again and now being able to do it, everything is so much more appreciated, and I’m so much more thankful for even the mundane stuff.”