MILWAUKEE (WITI) — From fighting fires, to fighting Stage 4 cancer, a Milwaukee firefighter has defied the odds, and Kristin Ciganek’s story has sparked change in the Milwaukee Fire Department.
When a call comes in, fire officials rush to action. It is a system of urgency, reliance and camaraderie — even when a comrade is missing.
Lieutenant Kristin Ciganek hasn’t been called to a fire in months.
“This isn’t what I want out of my life. I still want to be a firefighter. I have always said from day one, I want my life back,” Ciganek said.
Ciganek’s life took a dramatic turn in August, when she returned from a fire call.
“I jumped off the rig like I had done a thousand times before and I started having excruciating abdominal pain,” Ciganek said.
That night, the firefighter of 13 years and mother of three found out she had a four-inch by five-inch mass on her ovary. A few weeks later, her doctor delivered even worse news.
“You have Stage 4 colon cancer. Me, not knowing much about cancer, I said ‘how many stages are there?’ And he said four. And I thought it my head, that really sucks,” Ciganek said.
“She really had no warning symptoms at all of this cancer. She was too young to be screened,” Dr. James Thomas said.
Dr. Thomas says Ciganek was otherwise in excellent health. In the last year, she’d run eight road races. Suddenly, it seemed she had just months to live.
“Certainly the odds of being in complete remission are less than five percent in this situation,” Dr. Thomas said.
“Five percent means that there’s people in there that have made it. I was going to be one of those people,” Ciganek said.
Dr. Thomas put Ciganek on a new, more aggressive chemotherapy regimen at Froedtert Hospital to wipe out the cancer that had spread from her colon to her liver.
“She got chemotherapy in a pump that’s underneath her skin and goes directly to her liver,” Dr. Thomas said.
“He told me there was a one in a million shot that chemo alone would get rid of my cancer,” Ciganek said.
The co-workers she had relied on fighting fires helped her fight through chemo.
“They sit at chemo with me. They call and see how I am. They send me cards,” Ciganek said.
Most of Ciganek’s cancer died off quickly, and a major surgery took care of the rest.
“My cancer is completely gone. They can’t find any of it anymore,” Ciganek said.
Ciganek hasn’t returned to work, but visits on occasion.
“It helps so much to make me still feel a part of the Fire Department. I love coming up, but I hate leaving,” Ciganek said.
“She has been upbeat and positive throughout and I have to believe that`s a great part of her success,” Chief Deputy Terry Lintonen said.
Even in her absence, Ciganek is making a different in the Milwaukee Fire Department. Since her diagnosis, the MFD applied for and received a $350,000 grant for employee physicals and blood work cancer screenings.
“Hopefully if anyone else in our department has something like this in the early stages, we can catch it early and get them treated,” Lintonen said.
Ciganek shot a video, urging her co-workers to take advantage of the free screenings. It has been viewed by every member of the MFD.
“If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone,” Ciganek said.
Ciganek’s next goal is to be back in uniform by September.
“I won`t be happy until I`m completely back to the way I was,” Ciganek said.