My Dad Was A 9/11 First Responder. Then A Giant Tumor Started Growing In His Chest.
I might be a part of the last generation with personal memories of Sept. 11, 2001. It’s bizarre realizing that many children ― even people just a year or two younger than me ― might only know about what happened on 9/11 from what they read in their history textbooks, see in documentaries, or hear in personal stories told by their loved ones. My memories are blurry and scattered, but they’re always there.
I remember my dad, a New York City Police Department officer, dropping me off at pre-kindergarten on that morning and teachers worriedly whispering to each other. In my mind’s eye, I can still see Dad coming back a short time later and kneeling down to say goodbye to me. I didn’t know it at the time, but he came back to see me because he didn’t know if he would ever see me again. He was about to head into Manhattan, where the first plane had just struck the North Tower.
I remember him returning home that night, caked in white dust. I remember his hard hat, which some first responders wore while they stood on the pile of rubble at Ground Zero. I remember him coming home with open arms, taking me in for a big hug after he spent the day picking up the pieces of America’s broken heart. Eventually, as I grew up, these experiences faded into the background along with other fuzzy childhood memories. I was young enough at the time to experience the luxury of those chilling memories lying dormant, though they were still ever-present.
That is until Dad started to cough.
When I was 14, my father was diagnosed with angiosarcoma, an aggressive soft tissue cancer with a grim survival rate. He had developed a tumor in his chest that was roughly the size of a small basketball. Doctors eventually determined that it was caused by the inhalation of toxins at Ground Zero and they said they had never seen anything like it. Somehow, it had been growing in his body totally symptomless for years. Only when it grew so large that it began to lean on his lung did we have any indication at all that anything was wrong.
At that time, 10 years had passed since my dad rushed to help on 9/11. Young children had never known a Manhattan skyline that had been so quickly and tragically altered it made the city’s head spin. Yet here my family was, staring down a terrifying disease threatening to take away someone we loved more than anything else in the world, all because of what happened to that skyline.
With my dad receiving 50-50 odds for surviving his cancer, we began the journey to fight the tumor in his chest, and the road was long and grueling. He started an intense regimen of chemotherapy, which was to be followed by major surgery, and then radiation treatment. Every day he seemed sicker than the day before.
Despite the outpouring of support, my brother and I still felt like we were in the eye of a hurricane. As we stood at its center, we looked around and saw Dad was weak and pale, Mom was scrambling, the doorbell was ringing nonstop, and the winds continued to howl as the surge surrounded us.
My mother tried to look after my brothers and me while she cared for Dad, but we knew she was struggling. Dad’s friends, many of them NYPD officers like him, sent trays of food or stopped by to check in. Our extended family frequently descended on our house, doing what they could to support us. Teachers at my high school regularly checked in on me. Despite the outpouring of support, my brother and I still felt like we were in the eye of a hurricane. As we stood at its center, we looked around and saw Dad was weak and pale, Mom was scrambling, the doorbell was ringing nonstop, and the winds continued to howl as the surge surrounded us.
The chemotherapy forced us all to play the waiting game. Doctors scanned the tumor again and again, hoping it would shrink enough to be safely removed. My mom dubbed it “the monster” and shook her head when people heard his story and asked how he could possibly still be alive. When 9/11’s anniversary rolled around, I had never felt so alone. I watched the news cover families who lost loved ones that day ― stories of final phone calls and wounds that had somehow started to heal ― and I looked at my Dad. Tired, nauseous, and weak, he seemed to wither away before my eyes. For some, the horror had become a painful memory. For me, it was actively trying to kill my father.
The surgery happened on one of the hottest days of the summer. My younger brother spent a lot of time worrying by himself, and our little brother, who was just a toddler at the time, played with his toys and unknowingly enjoyed the bliss that came with being far too young to understand what was happening. I spent the day returning phone calls and text messages from well-wishers, joined by my aunt and uncle, who had offered to stay with my brothers and me while the rest of the family sat in the hospital waiting room praying for good news.
Miraculously, the good news came: The tumor was out and Dad was in recovery, where he would remain for several weeks. We visited him a few times before he finally came home, and when he did, we immediately piled into his arms.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said quietly as we rejoiced. He was right, we weren’t ― he would need to finish recovering, and then begin radiation treatment. For the time being, though, we were safe. The monster had been evicted, the chemo was over, and the sun had come out. His prognosis was good and his strength had begun to return. Eventually, his hair grew back, his frame filled out, and his once constant treatments and hospital visits transitioned into routine checkups and scans of his chest every few months. Though the illness has permanently impacted him in some ways, recently his doctors excitedly shared that he has made it seven years with no evidence of the disease anywhere in his body. Nurses often called him “a walking miracle.”
For a while, everything was fine. The process of recovering from the ordeal felt a little bit like walking on eggshells, with everyone waiting for the next horror to strike, but it didn’t. Our family was slowly, but surely, pulling itself back together.
But the dark clouds were never too far away as it seemed so many people we loved around us were also sick or falling ill.
It felt like everyone knew someone who was suffering from a 9/11-related illness ― my friends, their friends, neighbors, colleagues. My dad lost close friends or people he had worked with. Every time I saw a TV interview with a tearful family who had lost a loved one to a 9/11-related disease, the guilt stung bitterly. Children had lost their fathers, but for some reason, I got to keep mine.
There are no words that can adequately express what a family goes through when their loved one is diagnosed with a 9/11-related illness. It’s not happenstance. It’s a sickness that developed as a direct result of one of the most devastating days our country has ever known, and it makes you feel as though that day never ended. When first responders and activists traveled to the Capitol to fight for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, families who experienced 9/11 illnesses understood that it wasn’t just about the compensation itself. For the first time, the country was truly hearing our stories. We were being seen, and our daily battle with either the illnesses themselves or recovering from the trauma they caused was being understood.
It’s very easy to feel alone when your loved one is fighting a 9/11-related illness. You are immediately and brutally hurled into an experience that will stick with you for the rest of your life. For my family, every time Dad coughs too hard, we wince. Every time he goes to the doctor for a checkup and a scan, we hold our breath. It feels as though no one can understand what that is like or answer the questions you have. For a while, I seriously did not know if my father would be there to walk me down the aisle on my wedding day.
Even though he has recovered and his routine checkups haven’t found anything else, there is always a lurking terror in the back of my mind that reminds me that it could return at any given moment, perhaps with a vengeance. I don’t think those thoughts will ever go away.
A 9/11-related illness often makes the family affected feel as though 9/11 never ended, and when that illness is cancer, the disease seems to take on its own distinctive nature, as though it were a living thing and not just a disease. I always told myself ― both when my dad was sick and still, even today ― that if I broke down, gave up, and allowed myself to feel the despair, the cancer would win.
I experienced some of the most difficult moments of my life and will continue to grapple with the impact of my dad’s illness. But I knew that the inherent need I felt to stand up and support my family in the most devastating moments of Dad’s illness was bigger and more powerful than the cancer ever could be. I promised myself that even if we ended up losing the battle, it was not going to prevail over who I was, and to this day, I have not allowed it to do that.
First responders like my dad were on the front lines of the horror that took place 18 years ago. The United States promised that it would never forget, and first responders and activists have worked tirelessly for years to make sure we don’t. They have played a key role in our country’s healing ― comforting us and lifting us up as they mourned alongside us. I believe they have demonstrated ― and continue to demonstrate ― the truest kind of patriotism by showing up when called to help, assisting others in the most trying times, and getting back up if ever knocked to the floor. So often when there’s a tragedy, the accounts of the heroes who ran toward the flames and protected others end up being the stories we cling to the most. They show us what it truly means to be American ― or what it should mean to be American.
The first responders who rushed to the World Trade Center were not thinking about themselves when they made their way to downtown Manhattan on that fateful day. Now, many of them are battling 9/11-related illnesses and, along with their families, many are still grappling with PTSD. They have stories to tell and wounds to heal, and when they speak, we should listen to them and, if they ask for our help, we should offer it. These men and women gave of themselves ― some of them literally gave their lives ― and as we commemorate this painful day in our country’s history, we should honor what they did and do whatever we can to support them and their loved ones.
Emily Thomas is from Brooklyn, New York, and recently graduated college cum laude with a degree in English. She is currently pursuing a J.D. at New York Law School, where she plans to study immigration and international law. In her essays, she likes to write about the legal field, politics, women’s issues, and her personal experiences.