THE C3FAC STORY
Firefighter Lorenzo Abundiz (Santa Ana Fire Department, California) loved being a Fireman. His fellow firefighters nicknamed him "Mongo" because of his size and strength. He felt honored to be a firefighter and had a passion for his job; so much, in fact, that he had been named a "Fireman's Fireman" by his comrades because he put so much heart and enthusiasm into performing his duties. Like many of his buddies in the fire service, he would do anything to save anyone, including animals, from life threatening situations. He even saved his fellow firefighters. And for that specific reason, in 1992, Lorenzo was awarded the California State Fireman's Medal of Valor after he rescued firefighters trapped under a collapsed structure during a commercial building fire. After making forcible entry, Lorenzo was changing blades on his Stihl saw when the collapse happened. He was wearing his SCBA, but his mask was not hooked up and there was no time to do so before rushing in to save his comrades. The rescue was recreated for television on the program "Rescue 911," narrated by William Shatner, and first aired on February 4, 1992. (Watch the episode here.)
Eventually the sacrifices Lorenzo made throughout his 27-year firefighting career, including countless exposures to toxic atmospheres such as that described above, caught up with him. And his staggering medical challenges began.
CANCER BATTLE NO. 1
One day in early 1998, Lorenzo sustained an injury to his right side during a rescue. It was thought to be a muscle pull. A few months later, on April 6, 1998, he walked in to Santa Ana City Hall to conduct some business. A staff member named Peggy Beeuwsaert provided him with the assistance he needed. Lorenzo was struck by Peggy's kindness--and by Cupid's arrow. He felt a strong desire to see her again; so a few days later, he sent her a box full of different types of candies and chocolates in gratitude for her assistance, then invited her on a ride-along at the firehouse. Their relationship progressed, and they began to fall in love.
But that injury kept bothering him--and what had originally been diagnosed as a pulled muscle turned out to be a lump. On May 8, 1998, just one month after Lorenzo and Peggy had met, doctors diagnosed it as a rare and highly aggressive cancer called leiomyosarcoma. Lorenzo was given only a 4% chance of survival. They fought the battle together.
Once the diagnosis changed to cancer, the City Lorenzo had served for 18 years at that time (he had previously served as a Fireman with the Pomona Fire Department and McDonnell Douglas as well) dropped his workers' compensation coverage, refusing to acknowledge that the cancer may have had a causal connection to his 24-year firefighting career. As a result, an urgently needed surgery was delayed for over a month as Lorenzo scrambled through all the red tape necessary to get approval for the surgery from his own HMO insurance. By that time, a second tumor had formed, with the spread of satellite cancer cells likely.
At one point during the ensuing long and drawn out fight for workers compensation benefits, Lorenzo received a letter from Assemblyman Louis J. Papan dated June 28, 2000, who wrote, "As this process has elapsed my staff and I have hoped that common sense and humanity would prevail in this situation. I am sorry that has not happened yet." One low point for Lorenzo was sitting in a deposition hearing with drainage tubes hanging off of his side following cancer surgery, feeling like a criminal because he was asking the City to accept the leiomyosarcoma cancer as work related so that he could receive adequate medical care to save his life.
A TIMES SQUARE WEDDING
While still fighting the leiomyosarcoma, and two months prior to being forced into an early medical disability retirement, Lorenzo married Peggy in the middle of Times Square, New York on ABC's Good Morning America (GMA) on June 22, 2001, after viewers voted for them as having the most amazing love story. Three FDNY firefighters were among the attendees, GMA anchors Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson signed the wedding certificate, and a dalmation dog served as the ring bearer. Lorenzo's radiologist/oncologist was one of the bridesmaids, his firefighting crew were his groomsmen, and The Reverend Leslie Smith joined their hands together in marriage as taxis passed by during morning rush hour traffic. In addition to being nationally televised, the wedding was featured in US Weekly Magazine (shown left) and a myriad of other media publications.
Immediately following the wedding, it was announced to the couple during the show that $10,000 would be donated in their name to the families of three FDNY firefighters who had lost their lives during the tragic Father's Day fire less than a week before. (The couple had asked that their all-expenses-paid honeymoon be cancelled so that those funds could be donated to the families of the fallen firefighters. Instead, the show made the donation and still sent the couple on their honeymoon.) Read the New York Post article.
CANCER BATTLE NO. 2
Miraculously, in September 2003, Lorenzo was declared cured from the leiomyosarcoma cancer. But just one month later, in October 2003, he was diagnosed with a second cancer, this time in his bladder. Doctors informed him the pathology showed traces of tar in the makeup of his tumor. Lorenzo had never smoked a cigarette in his life, but during ventilation procedures at structure fires he had often been on top of roofs, widely known to contain tar paper. Despite this information, and although California's presumptive laws covered bladder cancer as a condition caused by firefighting, Lorenzo decided not to file a workers' compensation claim because he did not want to suffer through the same stress he had experienced back in 1998 during his first cancer battle, when he had tried to fight for benefits so he could receive proper medical treatment at that time.
CODE 3 FOR A CURE IS FORMED
One day in 2006, as Lorenzo lay in a hospital bed in ICU at USC Medical Center recovering from a nephrectomy, he looked up at his wife Peggy and said, "I'm tired of cancer. I'm tired of seeing my buddies suffer and die from it. Some day, I'm going to drive a fire engine across America to celebrate my retirement and to honor and remember them, because it was they who paved the way." At the time, neither one of them realized the significance of that statement. Somehow, though, it ignited a burning drive.
Two years later, Lorenzo held true on that commitment he had made from his hospital bed. He would call the journey "Code 3 for a Cure" Mission of Honor and Hope Across America. The term "Code 3" had been used at his fire station whenever he and his comrades responded to a call that required both lights and sirens. It was considered to be a call of the highest urgency. Lorenzo thought it an appropriate name for his mission because he saw an urgent need to draw attention to the issue of cancer in the fire service, and to cure the effects of cancer among his fellow firefighters.
On June 13, 2008, Lorenzo and Peggy, along with Firefighters Jeremy Abundiz and John McKnight, departed from the Los Angeles City Fire Department, driving a fire engine across the country and back. In 33 days, they visited 59 fire departments in 24 states, collecting the names of firefighters who had lost their lives to cancer. The crew conducted memorial ceremonies in both Los Angeles and New York, in which they read the names of the firefighters to honor and remember them. A memorial fire bell that was carried on the apparatus was used for the ceremonies, and was rung out once for each name called. The crew also conducted ceremonies at various fire departments along their journey. As Lorenzo visited fire stations across the country with his team, he shared his experiences and encouraged fellow firefighters to follow their safety guidelines, utilize their protective equipment, and get their cancer screenings.
On September 11, 2008, the IRS issued its determination letter establishing Code 3 for a Cure as a nonprofit 501(c)3 public charity retroactive to June 1, 2008.
CANCER BATTLE NO. 3
Unfortunately, cancer wasn't finished with him yet. Later during the same month C3FAC received its approval as a nonprofit organization (September 2008), Lorenzo underwent his final systoscopy to check for any more cancerous tumors in his bladder, and was declared cured from this second cancer. However, due to a prior elevated PSA reading, the doctor performed a needle biopsy of the prostate during the same procedure and it was discovered that he had prostate cancer. Thus began yet another fight against cancer for Lorenzo. Ironically, back on June 11, 1999, he had spoken at the Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center on National Cancer Survivor Day to help unveil the new U.S. postage stamp for prostate cancer awareness. (See event photo here.) Now, almost 10 years later, he was fighting it himself.
In the spring of 2009, Lorenzo began treatment for his prostate cancer at MD Anderson's Proton Therapy Center in Houston, Texas. The Houston Fire Department opened its doors to Lorenzo, allowing him to stay at Station 33 while undergoing treatments. The camaraderie and brother/sisterhood Lorenzo experienced from the Houston Firefighters helped him tremendously in dealing with the emotional and physical effects of treatments. While there, Lorenzo learned of the Firefighter House project (the renovation of old Houston Fire Station 27) which, once completed, will provide a place to stay for firefighters from around the country who are undergoing cancer treatments in the Houston area.
CODE 3 FOR A CURE EXPANDS ITS PROGRAMS TO INCLUDE FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE
Although by now C3FAC was doing its part to promote awareness of cancer in the fire service, share preventive measures for firefighters, and encourage those who were diagnosed, Lorenzo and Peggy wanted to do more to help firefighters who were battling cancer. They recalled what they had gone through during the worst times. Not only did they have to fight for proper medical care for Lorenzo's cancers, but they had also faced an avalanche of medical bills which caused financial hardship. They believed that this type of stress only served to further undermine the healing process. Together with the C3FAC Board of Directors, they made the decision to begin offering financial assistance to firefighters throughout the United States who are battling cancer. C3FAC issued its first check in June 2012, to a retired career firefighter in Missouri who was spending his entire monthly retirement check on liver medications as he battled liver cancer. Since that time, many other checks have been issued.
FROM WEDDING SHOES TO FIRE BOOTS
In 2014, Peggy began competing in races across the country wearing helmet, boots, turnout pants and jacket, and a Dräger 45-minute SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus). Why all the heavy gear? To represent Lorenzo, who cannot compete due to the after-effects of his cancer battles, and to call attention to C3FAC and the struggles firefighters often face when battling cancer. During her races, Peggy carries Lorenzo's Medal of Valor in her turnout jacket pocket as her source of strength. Says Peggy, "My inspiration is Lorenzo. He wakes up every morning totally focused and driven towards a purpose. He constantly utilizes his athleticism--and sometimes sheer grit and determination--to overcome the painful and debilitating after-effects of cancer treatments in order to work to get help for other firefighters who are struggling like he has."
ANSWERING A DIFFERENT CALL
Now a three-time cancer survivor, Lorenzo credits his faith and his survival instincts with helping him through the medical calamities he has endured. He also credits his parents for teaching him how to deal with life's struggles in a positive way, as well as Peggy for keeping his spirits high. "There is only one power on earth that can bring back happiness and health to those who have lost it," says Lorenzo. "That is the power and magic of true love."
Contrary to their storybook wedding, it has been anything but "storybook" for the couple. In addition to battling three cancers, Lorenzo has suffered a myriad of other medical calamities, including removal of his left kidney due to a rare tumor called oncocytoma, an array of other surgical and nonsurgical procedures, and countless trips to the emergency room.
Now, Lorenzo, the retired Fireman, Medal of Valor recipient, and 3-time cancer survivor whom doctors have referred to as a "high risk patient," a "complex case," and a "walking miracle" is joined by Peggy and other athletes, as well as a Board of Directors and fire departments, corporations, and individuals across the country, in answering a different call: to help fellow firefighters across the nation who are battling cancer. Lorenzo's drive, and that of all members of the C3FAC team, is rooted in the serious need for justice--in the form of support--for all firefighters who are suffering with occupational cancer.