Steve Dillman had been a firefighter most of his life. He joined the Indianapolis Fire Department in 1968, served for 38 years and reluctantly retired in 2005.
Five years, later, missing his job terribly, he decided to un-retire. He wanted to go back to firefighting. When he informed his wife, Terri “Frosty” Dillman, of his intention, she was more than just a little stunned.
She was amazed.
“When he came home and told me he wanted to do that, I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. You really want to do this, don’t you? Do it, then,’” recalled Frosty, who knew better than anyone that there was no dissuading her irrepressible husband.
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Not that she would ever want to. His iron will and steel resolve, after all, are more than personality traits. They are survival traits. Frosty wasn’t surprised that Steve wanted to go back to work. She was surprised he wanted to go back because of all he had been through, physically and emotionally, during a 10-year nightmare that never seemed to end. Steve battled prostate cancer twice. First diagnosed in 2001, he received a second diagnosis in 2007.
But the worst was yet to come.
While undergoing radiation treatment — again — for prostate cancer, which he thought he had beaten after the gland was removed following his first diagnosis, he developed a cough that wouldn’t go away. The cough led to the discovery of a growth in his throat.
The growth was cancer.
Still, the worst was yet to come.
While undergoing radiation treatment for throat cancer — right after finishing 37 radiation treatments for prostate cancer — Frosty received devastating news of her own. A routine visit to an endocrinologist for a follow-up exam for a previous illness revealed she, too, had cancer. Papillary thryoid cancer.
Suddenly, in the spring and summer of 2008, the Greenwood residents were both fighting for their lives — though Frosty didn’t necessarily see it that way.
Her concern was for her husband, who was then 65 and tottering on the brink of death. As brutal as the prostate treatment was, the throat cancer radiation regimen was downright torturous. Steve, a stout 230-pound firefighter before treatment, had become a 160-pound bedridden patient, on a feeding tube, drifting in and out of lucidity.
“I felt like at that point that my cancer was an inconvenience. I wasn’t going through a lot,” Frosty said. “We had already found the lump in his throat. We didn’t know what was going to happen with that, so I just really felt inconvenienced. Mine didn’t hurt. Even the surgery (to remove the thyroid) didn’t hurt.
“It was just an inconvenience.”
But it was no small matter.
Aside from being life-threatening, Frosty’s cancer came at a time when her husband needed her most. Yet she had her own surgery to endure, followed by post-surgery radioactive iodine therapy that literally kept the couple apart. During those treatments, the couple could not be within 10 feet of each other, let alone share a bedroom or bathroom.As bad as Steve’s 2001 battle with cancer was, the couple’s co-battle in 2007 and 2008 was a nadir neither could imagine.“Once I was diagnosed, in a six-month period we were just slammed,” Frosty said. “The first time he had prostate cancer, we were devastated. But he got through that, got through the surgery, everything’s well, and then he’s re-diagnosed. So he starts that treatment, and then in the middle of him doing that …”
The never-ending nightmare got worse. Yet it did not destroy the couple.
Fast-forward to today.
Steve is 71 and in remission from throat cancer since 2008. He is still being treated for prostate cancer, receiving twice annual Lupron injections, but he leads an active life. In no way resembling a man who has battled for his life three times in 10 years, he is close to 200 pounds and — one year after retiring a second time as a firefighter — leads an active life that includes giving presentations to area fire departments on cancer prevention and lending support to cancer patients.
Frosty is 56 and has been remission from thyroid cancer since 2009. She works for a law firm in Indianapolis and, like her husband, bears no signs of her illness and is back to an active life.
But in the bleak days of the previous decade, life was, at best, uncertain. At worst, it was agonizing.
Journey becomes longer
It all began in December 2001, when Steve was first diagnosed with prostate cancer — a disease that claimed the life of his brother, Scott, in 1998 and struck another of his brothers, Tom, who finished treatment last year.At the time of his diagnosis, Steve was a strapping firefighter, a part-time drag-racer and a health enthusiast who didn’t drink, smoke or use tobacco. Determined to fight the disease and return to his job and hobbies as quickly as possible, he underwent surgery in February 2002 to have the prostate removed. He was confident that was the end of it. But it just the beginning of a far longer, tougher journey.
“Everything was fine, then it started coming back on me in 2007,” Steve said. “(Doctors) were keeping an eye on it, then in 2008 it got to the point where they were going to have to do something with me. So I started radiation treatments on my prostate bed, and I had 37 treatments on my prostate bed.”
Ironically, it was while undergoing those treatments that an entirely different but equally deadly form of cancer was discovered — one that he discovered himself.
“Going through that radiation, about halfway through it, every time I’d lay on the table I’d start coughing. I could feel something in my throat,” Steve said. “One morning I’m shaving, and I shut the bathroom light off and took a flashlight and looked in my throat, and I could see something growing inside my throat.”
After contacting his family doctor, he was referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist, who, after removing Steve’s tonsils, made the diagnosis.
“I had throat cancer,” said Steve, who was 65 and going through the final stages of radiation for prostate cancer. “No connection to the prostate, two completely different cancers.”
Effect of eating smoke
But he is confident he knows the single source: Decades of fighting fires, and inhaling toxic fumes, without wearing an air mask.“I’ve never smoked. I don’t chew, and I don’t drink,” he said. But (after) 38 years on the Indianapolis Fire Department, we feel like that’s where my throat cancer came from and probably my prostate cancer, too.”Frosty doesn’t know the source of her cancer, but the first signs of trouble emerged in August 2007, about the time Steve’s prostate cancer returned. She visited an endocrinologist for a throat ailment and eventually had the left side of her thyroid removed.
The endocrinologist discovered “a small spot of cancer” and assured Frosty it was nothing to worry about. So she didn’t, until she switched doctors in late April 2008. The new endocrinologist found “10 times” the amount of cancer on the right side of the thyroid that wasn’t removed, and suddenly Frosty had plenty to worry about.
She had cancer. Steve had two types of cancer. Through the late spring and summer of 2008, both would be patients at Franciscan St. Francis Health-Indianapolis. Both would have surgeries. Both would have radiation.
And both would fight relentlessly, fight for each other — and benefit greatly from the help of family and friends, and an unshakable faith in a higher power. They were in it together, and they were in it to win.
“We have so many friends now that have gone through cancer and who were alone,” Frosty said.
“We decided that that must be really hard, because one of us was always OK. You can’t say that you don’t ever have a bad day or feel sorry for yourself, because you do, you absolutely do. But fortunately, we only felt that way one day at the same time.
“We started calling ourselves, ‘the cancer couple.’ Even in cancer, you need humor.”
In Steve’s case, though, there was no cheer enduring throat cancer radiation. He couldn’t eat; couldn’t maintain weight; required a feeding tube; and required virtual around-the-clock care from Memorial Day weekend, when he started treatment, through the end of August, when his treatment ended.
Only then did he show signs of possibly beating the disease, an outcome that had been highly in doubt.
‘My taste came back’
Though still being treated for prostate cancer, he has been in remission from throat cancer since 2008. Not only that, he can do something today that doctors predicted he would never do again: taste food.“I lost all my taste. They told me at the end of a year, that’s what my taste would be. It wouldn’t get any better,” Steve said. “But for some reason, last fall, my taste came back, and now I can taste food again.
“I had people say, ‘Ah, I wish I couldn’t taste food. I’d lose weight.’ No, you don’t. That is one thing you enjoy doing, is eating.”
After regaining strength and adding about 40 pounds of healthy weight, Steve decided he didn’t enjoy retirement as much he expected. It was at that time, in 2010, he told Frosty he wanted to back to work. She gave her blessing. He was hired by the Greenwood Fire Department and worked there until retiring for good in 2014, at age 70.
But he’s not completely, really, retired.
A member of the “Firefighters Cancer Network,” Steve gives presentations to area fire departments on the importance of wearing air masks while battling blazes — something firefighters of his generation seldom, if ever, did.
“We really had no idea what we were getting into. So many of the fires that we have this day and age have so many toxins and some really, really bad stuff that we get into,” he said.
“When I first started on the fire department in 1968, we didn’t have air masks, so we just had to eat the smoke. When we finally got our air masks in the ’70s, there was so much peer pressure from the older guys that nobody wore them.
“It’s a proven fact now that firefighters, even with the air mask, any place that you’re sweating, you can absorb this stuff through the skin.”
‘Life is very good’
Besides talking to fire departments, Steve also volunteers to talk to cancer patients to offer encouragement, support and inspiration. Hospitals have carte blanche to give his number to patients, and he’ll take calls at any time, day or night, or pay visits to homes or hospitals, at any time, day or night.“He’s incredible. He’s incredible at 71, without all that (cancer treatments),” Frosty said. “He’s been a true mentor and inspiration, because it is hard to get through that. He’s proof that it’s not always tragic.
“Everyone who came to the hospital said, ‘He’s not going to make it, is he?’ And I didn’t know. At one point he said to me, ‘This is what I’m going to look like when I die, isn’t it?’ And I said, ‘Oh, no, you’re fine.’ That’s when he had the feeding tube in him.”
But the feeding tube is long gone. Steve and Frosty have their health. They have a happy blended family of five adult children and nine grandchildren. They have a wealth of dear friends. They have vacations to take, grandkids to enjoy, a future to savor and a purpose to fulfill.
“Life is very good. I’m very blessed, and I like giving back to the guys,” Steve said.
“When we give classes, we say we’re not trying to make your lives harder by making you wear those air masks all the time, but we want to see you guys enjoy your pensions some time down the road. You want to be around for your kids and your grandkids, and there for a while I didn’t think I was going to see any of this. So I’m very blessed.
“God blessed me, and he kept me here for a reason. And I think this is one of the main reasons I’m here, to give back to other people who are going through this.”
Name: Steve Dillman
Cancer: Prostate, throat
Treatment: Prostate removed; radiation for prostate and throat; twice-a-year Lupron injections
What cancer taught me: “When you’re young, you think you’re invincible. Nothing’s going to happen to you. If I had it to do all over again, I definitely would have taken better care of myself when I was younger. I don’t take anything for granted. You need to take care of yourself, and you never know what tomorrow’s going to bring. And if there’s something that you really want to do, I believe in doing it. If you’re financially and physically able to do it, then by all means you should do it. Don’t put it off, because if you put it off, it might be too late some day. I’m a lot closer to the Lord now that I was before. I couldn’t have got through this without him, and I know that.”
How cancer changed me: “I appreciate every day that I wake up. I have some days that are bad days, but there’s always tomorrow.”
What I would tell someone just diagnosed with cancer: “It’s a one-day-at-a-time treatment. Some days you’ll have some really, really bad days, and some days are a little bit better. But you’ve got to have faith. It’s just one day at a time, and that’s the approach we took.”
Name: Terri “Frosty” Dillman
Cancer: Papillary thyroid
Treatment: Thyroid gland removed, radioactive iodine
What cancer taught me: “To finally stop being defined by it. There came a point in my life that I decided that cancer was no longer going to define me. I didn’t want every conversation I had with my friends and family to be, ‘How are you feeling? How is it going? What’s new with your cancer?’ I was glad when we got past that point and (could) just be us again. That was important. Our friends and family and time together is incredibly important to me. It always has been, but certainly more now than at any other time. And it has absolutely taught me that you need to have a relationship with God. In your quiet moments, you’re talking to God; you’re not talking to your doctor and you’re not talking to your husband or your wife or your friends. I think you have to get a peace from that. It’s been said more than once that you find God when you’re at your lowest point in life, and I think that it’s taught me to keep that relationship, even in my good days, (and) not wait for the bad days to keep it. We try to keep it up. We work really hard on it.”
How cancer changed me: “It has made me quieter than I used to be. Cancer kind of gave (Steve) a voice, and then when I got cancer, I thought maybe it was time for me to just be quiet and absorb things around me and not have too much of an opinion anymore. Now, I’m sure people are going to laugh when they read that, but it’s true. It’s probably made me more quiet. It made me not have to have an opinion about everything.”
What I would tell someone just diagnosed with cancer: “To have faith, do it one day at a time. The biggest thing for me is one day at a time, because if you look down the road, it’s just a scary road. There are some things you need to just take today.”