Firefighter with cancer has plenty of support

William Ferchland, Tahoe Daily Tribune
Jim Grant/Tahoe Daily TribuneTahoe-Douglas assistant fire chief Bruce VanCleemput, front and center, is surrounded by a few of the 16 firefighters who shaved their heads to show support for their assistant chief. Pictured are Ken Poohachoff, Scott Stice, Steve Wetterer, Glen Sanders, Brad Dorton and Ralph Jones.

It appeared as a tiny shadow on a chest X-ray during a routine physical.

The shadow, identified as lymphoma cancer and determined to cast dimness over Bruce Van Cleemput’s life, is being attacked by the firefighter’s firm optimism and surrounding support.

“For me to be positive and to get the reinforcement back is what’s required to survive on a day-to-day basis,” the assistant fire chief said before going to a meeting at the Tahoe-Douglas Round Hill Station on Tuesday morning. “If you’re down all the time, it doesn’t help you make it through each day.”

The cancer, discovered in January and about a centimeter in size at the time, was later diagnosed as intermediate-grade non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It’s a blood cancer located in Van Cleemput’s chest. The good news is that it doesn’t reside in any organs.

Five years ago, Van Cleemput had an isolated lymph infection in his right cheek. Since the tumor is recurring, Van Cleemput decided to choose the most aggressive treatment among three options.

Intense treatment

Van Cleemput, 51, already has two rounds of chemotherapy behind him and is facing his last next week. In three weeks, his hair came out in handfuls. Sometimes his fingers become numb and the taste of nails invades his mouth. But the chemo, combined with a subsequent stem cell transplant with bone marrow, will hopefully vanquish the threat.

He and his wife of 21 years, Cindy, drive down to the U.C. Davis Cancer Center in Sacramento for his intravenous drug therapy. They play Spite and Malice, a card game Cindy learned from her mother 15 years ago, during his therapy.

Kristine Ahlberg is the RN bone marrow transplant coordinator at the center. Van Cleemput called her one of the “best people you can go to.”

Ahlberg said the third upcoming cycle for Van Cleemput will require three weeks of hospitalization. The cycle will use his own stem cells. They have the ability to divide indefinitely and help create specialized cells.

The chemo will strip his body of white blood cells, she said.

“It’s an intense treatment,” Ahlberg said. “There are side effects of regular doses of chemo. Since this is a higher dose, the side effects will be magnified.”

When asked what goes through his mind during those drives down the hill into the Sacramento Valley, the firefighter answered a different question.

“I try not to reflect or dwell on negative thinking,” he said. “You change the quality of your life, how you feel. You don’t sweat the small stuff. You enjoy what each day brings you.”

The other family

When fellow firefighter Leo Horton learned of Van Cleemput’s hair loss, he wanted to get his head shaved as close to the scalp as possible to support one of the first men he met in 1979, the year Horton became a Tahoe-Douglas firefighter.

At a union meeting, he asked if anyone else wanted in on the plan. Fifteen men agreed.

“We bought a set of clippers and did it in front of Station 3 at Round Hill,” Horton said. “It was as close as the clippers could get without a razor shaving it.”

Horton said Van Cleemput was surprised, but touched, by the gesture.

“I know he definitely appreciated the support shown for him,” Horton said. “It showed that he’s not alone and, like a big family, we support somebody when they’re in need.”

Van Cleemput had no control of the fate of his own hair, previously a short-cropped haircut of thin brown strands, and joked that his new look is cool and a time-saver.

“I can go from the shower to brushing my teeth without combing my hair,” he said with a chuckle.

Cindy is getting used to the look, now that the whiteness of the head is vanishing.

But for the other guys, the 16 firefighters who sat in front of the station with clippers buzzing above their heads, the bald look was a decision not forgotten by Van Cleemput.

“You just don’t realize how humbling that is until you see it,” Van Cleemput said. “It’s OK when you’re in a group and there is peer pressure but once they get out of that environment and their family is looking at them and their wife is looking at them … it’s a very personal thing that they did, sacrificing their own personal image for somebody else. That is just really overwhelming.”

A future without shadows

The third round of chemotherapy, along with the stem cell transplant, will have a good chance to knock the cancer into a long-term remission. Van Cleemput wanted the aggressive treatment for that reason: to remain young and healthy.

“They hate to say cure because it’s a very iffy thing but they have a lot of success with this treatment,” he said.

Van Cleemput still goes to work every day, except when he’s traveling to Sacramento with Cindy. Besides the taste of nails and numb fingers, another effect of chemotherapy is mood swings. With determination, he pushes those feelings aside and concentrates on his job.

Asked whether she is concerned more with Bruce responding to fires or having cancer, Cindy, 46, said neither.

“I’m not scared by either one of them,” she said. “He’s not stupid at fires and now, as a chief, he just stands by a truck. With cancer you just get treated and that’s all you can do is go through the treatment. If you worry about something you fix it, and if you can’t fix it, don’t worry about it.”

Horton calls Van Cleemput an inspiration. Nurse Ahlberg said Van Cleemput’s physical and emotionally activity is a key factor in his rehabilitation process.

Van Cleemput said the support is what keeps him strong.

“When you deal with something as crazy as this, you just don’t know; you try not to get hung up on statistics,” he said. “That’s the one thing about this, I can feel sorry for myself but there are a lot more people worse off than I am and they’re dealing with it positively. I have a work group around me and my family. So don’t snivel.”

— Contact William Ferchland at (530) 542-8014 or

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