Steven Skific

It’s a scary and lonely feeling when you find out you have cancer. Talking to other people with the same cancer helped me get through it.

I have been a police officer for almost 23 years. After 9/11, I spent eight months at the World Trade Center. At the time, I didn’t think about the long-term effects on my health—I was just doing my job. Later, a nearby hospital opened a screening center for 9/11 responders. I knew it was important to get checked out, so I started going there immediately.

Each year I went and the test results would come back fine. However, it seemed like I was constantly hearing of more survivors and first responders getting sick. This kept me wary that something could change for the worse.

Then one day, I felt a little lump in my throat. I went to my primary care doctor, who advised me to see an ENT. The ENT started ordering tests—one test after another, including a biopsy. I never thought it could have been cancer. However, the biopsy revealed that I had oropharyngeal cancer with lymph node involvement. This was one of the cancers many 9/11 survivors were diagnosed with many years later. When the doctor told me I had cancer, I felt like I was watching the sand run out of my life’s “sand timer”—that I was watching my life come to an end.

Fortunately, I had the support of my wife, who is a nurse—she helped me through the hardest days.

I started making appointments and asking around for the best surgeon. I had the procedure almost immediately. The doctor told me he took out 37 lymph nodes. Initially, I considered this number haunting—my police department lost 37 officers on 9/11. Three lymph nodes were infected with an aggressive form of cancer. As a result, my doctor advised me to undergo chemo and radiation treatment. 

The treatment was pretty grueling. The medical team strapped me down with my head in a plastic vise and put me in a tube. I prayed and did a lot of soul searching during this time. Towards the end of my treatment, I was beat up pretty badly. I felt like I had third degree burns in my throat from the radiation. I didn’t want to eat or drink, because it caused so much pain and vomiting. It’s a tough hurdle to get over. Fortunately, I had the support of my wife, who is a nurse—she helped me through the hardest days.

It’s important for people to know that it will be okay and you will make it through.

I still have lasting symptoms from the treatment. My throat is extremely dry, and I have neuropathy—my feet and hands are constantly tingling. This prevents me from running, and even acts up when I’m walking. Every doctor says I have to be patient. I might never be the same, but I am hopeful that the cancer never comes back.

It’s a scary and lonely feeling when you find out you have cancer. Talking to other people with the same cancer helped me get through it. In fact, one person I know experienced the same thing I did—sharing definitely helps. It’s important for people to know that it will be okay and you will make it through. The road has been long, but I see the light at the end of the tunnel now