For retired Rochester Fire Capt. Chuck Solseth, building a team and working together to fix a complex problem was what drew him to the fire service more than two decades ago.

Solseth’s career, which included various roles within the Rochester Fire Department and as an instructor with Riverland Community College, came to an end last month after receiving a life-changing diagnosis.

It first started with persistent acid reflux, not dulled by anti-reflux meds he had been taking for years. Then, during a meal at the fire station, Solseth started having difficulty swallowing. He visited his doctor and thought maybe he had shrinking of the esophagus. Within an hour of getting home from his appointment, he received a call: cancer. A biopsy the next day confirmed it was esophageal cancer.

“The prognosis as of right now is unknown,” Solseth said.

While his plans to retire were still a few years off, the diagnosis and the impending year of light duty at the fire station it would likely bring had Solseth re-evaluate his priorities.

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“I started thinking about, I could go in and spend time at the firehall doing support duties or I could retire and I could be home, help my wife out, maybe help my mom out in the Cities, and I could go see my grandkids.”

Firefighters and cancer

His retirement was announced on the Rochester Fire Department’s Facebook page. He told the Post Bulletin he wanted to share his story to help other firefighters realize “that this cancer happens.”

“Cancer is a recognized hazard of the job that firefighters face as we encounter more and more carcinogens in our profession,” the Rochester Fire Department wrote in a Facebook post on Sept. 27. “When synthetics that are found in many modern household goods burn, they release airborne toxins at levels that are unprecedented.

“Despite best practices, highly advanced firefighting gear, and state-of-the-art cleaning methods, firefighters find themselves at almost twice the risk of cancer as the general population.”

Citing research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, the national nonprofit Firefighter Cancer Support Network states that firefighters have a 9% higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14% higher risk of dying from cancer than the general U.S. population.

Cancer caused 66% of the career firefighters line-of-duty deaths from 2002 to 2019.

Solseth said his doctor thinks his cancer may have been caused by acid reflux, but working in the fire service could have also contributed.

“It’s hard to prove where this cancer comes from,” said Rochester Fire Capt. Caleb Feine, who also serves as the assistant director of the Minnesota chapter of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network. “You can't split a cancer cell open to determine it came from this house fire or that car fire."

Retired Rochester Fire Capt. Chuck Solseth with a firefighting helmet Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, at his home in Rochester. Solseth retired in September after 24 years with the Rochester Fire Department because of a recent cancer diagnosis. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
Retired Rochester Fire Capt. Chuck Solseth with a firefighting helmet Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021, at his home in Rochester. Solseth retired in September after 24 years with the Rochester Fire Department because of a recent cancer diagnosis. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Over the years, the Rochester Fire Department has taken steps to protect its firefighters. Diesel exhaust extraction units have been installed to help remove harmful fumes from trucks while they are running in the garages.

No longer is dirty gear a badge of honor. Firefighters now have multiple sets of turnout gear and gear is washed after every call where there may have been exposure to smoke. In most cases, firefighters don’t even wear their gear back to the station after responding to a fire. Instead, the smoky gear is placed in bags and in an outdoor compartment to help limit exposure.

Last day on a fire engine

Solseth's last day on a fire engine was Sept. 20. There were no fire calls that day, but he went out on three medical calls and was able to do his last radio transmission.

“I thanked dispatch and the fire department, wished them Godspeed, shook hands with my driver and my firefighters and thanked them for all their support and hard work, pulled into the station and took my gear off and that was it,”m he said.

Following his last day in the engine, Solseth worked a few days on light duty before officially retiring at the end of September.

Figuring out what to do

During the summer, Solseth underwent treatment at Mayo Clinic, including 25 trips to the clinic’s proton beam and a light course of chemotherapy that would then set him up for an esophagectomy.

Recalling his trips to the proton beam, Solseth became emotional as he remembered seeing children and families coming from around the country for care in the city he calls home.

“I got it easy. The things you see down at the clinic, you see people fighting for procedures that their insurance doesn't want to cover. I was just lucky,” he said. "I don't know how some do it. Hats off to them.

“I feel guilty. Of the 25 years I’ve been going to medicals in hotel rooms for people that are going through treatments and I’ll come up and say ‘oh yeah, you’re in the right place. They’ll help you out.' I never even considered the amount of discomfort and financial burden that these people have.”

At his presurgical scan in September, Solseth learned the cancer had spread to his liver and his hip. Surgery was no longer an option.

Still in the early days of his retirement, Solseth is figuring out what he will do. He has “100 brothers and sisters” in the fire service keeping in touch.