Lorenzo Abundiz (Firefighter/Engineer, Santa Ana, California, USA) felt he had it all. He felt invincible. 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 Firefighters Association's Medal of Valor after he rescued firefighters trapped under a burning facade. The rescue was recreated for television on the program "Rescue 911," narrated by William Shatner, and first aired on February 4, 1992.
But eventually, the sacrifices Lorenzo made throughout his firefighting career, including countless exposures to toxic atmospheres, caught up with him. And his staggering medical challenges began.
Lorenzo was first diagnosed with cancer on May 13, 1998, at the age of 44, after 24 years in the fire service. Following two surgeries and 36 rounds of radiation treatments, he returned to work but was subsequently forced into an early medical disability retirement in August 2001, bringing an abrupt end to his career in the fire service. Since then, he has been diagnosed with two other cancers, amongst a myriad of other medical challenges. Says Lorenzo, "I look forward to enjoying my retirement some day."
Lorenzo's first cancer was a rare and highly aggressive "leiomyosarcoma," located on his right side against his chest wall. Because his employer, the City in which he served, thought it was a pulled muscle, initially his injury was acknowledged as having been caused by his firefighting duties. However, once Lorenzo underwent surgery and it was discovered that he had cancer, the City immediately dropped his workers' compensation coverage, refusing to acknowledge even the possibility that the cancer had any causal connection to his 24-year firefighting career. As a result, an urgently needed second surgery was delayed for over a month as Lorenzo scrambled to get approval for treatment from his own HMO insurance. By that time, a second tumor had formed which was the size of a golf ball, with the spread of satellite cancer cells likely. Following his surgery, Lorenzo received some intimidating recommendations for follow-up treatment from his doctors. One was to cut off his shoulder against his chest wall, which of course would mean that his right arm would be gone as well; another was to live on a cancer treatment campus for a year and a half while undergoing double doses of chemotherapy, with stem cell harvesting. Lorenzo did neither. Instead, he did what he thought made sense for his body: he underwent 36 treatments of radiation therapy and turned to nature for healing.
For five years thereafter, Lorenzo underwent periodic scans to ensure the leiomyosarcoma was gone. At the five-year mark, in September 2003, his oncologist told him he was cured. Lorenzo and his wife Peggy were overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. Unfortunately, their celebration would be short-lived.
It was only one month later, in October 2003, that Lorenzo was diagnosed with a second cancer, this time in his bladder. For the next five years, he had to fight yet another demon that had invaded his body. Following surgery to remove the bladder tumor, Lorenzo underwent periodic checks once again. But the process for checking for reoccurence wouldn't be so easy this time around. Every three months or so, he had to endure an invasive procedure called a "systoscopy" so doctors could check for any signs of the tumor returning. Although California's presumptive laws cover bladder cancer as a condition caused by firefighting, and doctors told him the pathology showed traces of tar (suspected to be caused by the roof fires he had fought alongside his comrades), Lorenzo decided not to submit a workers' compensation claim to his employer because he did not want to suffer through the same stress he had experienced back in 1998 when he had tried to fight for proper medical treatment at that time. One low point he recalled was sitting in a deposition hearing with drainage tubes hanging off of his side following his first cancer surgery, feeling like a criminal because he was asking the City to accept the sarcoma cancer as work related so that he could receive adequate medical care to save his life.
In 2006, while Lorenzo was in the midst of battling his second cancer, doctors discovered a fast growing tumor in his left kidney, which they suspected to be yet another cancer. To make matters worse, as Lorenzo lay with IVs in his arm at USC Medical Center awaiting surgery, doctors gave him the somber news that the operation had to be cancelled. Why? During pre-op testing, they had discovered he had rare antigens in his blood and, because the kidneys are so vascular, they could not risk the surgery.
Lorenzo and Peggy went home and began their desperate battle to get the crucial surgery he needed. A local blood drive ensued, coordinated by the Abundiz family, along with the help of the USC Blood Donor Center. The American Red Cross conducted a nationwide search, and located only two units that matched Lorenzo's. Unfortunately, one of the units broke on transport. Doctors moved forward with the surgery anyway, due to the urgency of the situation. They took one unit of blood out of Lorenzo immediately prior to the surgery to add to the unit they already had. Unfortunately, it was not enough and the doctors had to remove Lorenzo's entire left kidney due to the high risk of cutting into such a vascular organ. It was not until the tumor was biopsied that doctors discovered it was not cancer but, rather, a rare disease of the kidney called "oncocytoma."
As Abundiz lay in the ICU recovering from his kidney surgery, he was inspired. Some day, he told Peggy, he was going to drive a fire engine across the United States to honor and remember his fellow comrades across the nation who had lost their battle with cancer.
In January 2008, Abundiz held true to his promise to Peggy and acted on the decision he had made in a hospital bed two years earlier. He decided to call the journey "Code 3 for a Cure" Mission of Hope and Honor Across America. The term "Code 3" had been used at his fire station whenever they would respond 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 eradicate cancer and felt that part of finding a cure was to help those who are hit so hard by it--his fellow firefighters. Lorenzo set a departure date of June 13, 2008, and got to work. His first step was to obtain a fire engine and, after approaching numerous fire apparatus manufacturers, it was Sutphen Corporation that came through and provided a fire engine for the journey. But Sutphen didn't stop there, also offering to provide the necessary fuel for the apparatus to get him across the country and back.
Once Lorenzo accomplished the critical first step of obtaining an apparatus, the rest of the logistics fell naturally into place. He, along with his wife, son, and some fellow comrades, departed on the scheduled date from the Los Angeles City Fire Department, driving the Sutphen 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 encouraged fellow firefighters to follow their safety guidelines, utilize the protective equipment provided by their department, and get their cancer screenings. He also relayed this message: "If you are ever diagnosed with cancer, remember, this: You are the general in this battle and your body is the battlefield. The doctors are your soldiers who will provide you with information about the enemy on the battlefield. But it is YOU who will make the final decision on the battle plan against this enemy. Don't rely on just one doctor's opinion; obtain at least a couple more opinions before you make the command decision that will change your life forever."
But Lorenzo and Peggy wanted to do more. They recalled what they had gone through during the worst times. In addition to the physical and psychological trauma caused by Lorenzo's cancer battles ( including the struggle to obtain proper medical care), they had also faced a nightmare of financial devastation due to the ensuing avalanche of medical bills, which had only added more stress to their situation. Lorenzo didn't want any firefighter to endure what he had experienced, and he knew of no organizations that offered financial assistance specifically to firefighters battling cancer. So he and Peggy decided that Code 3 for a Cure would not end with one trek across the United States but, rather, would continue on to become a nonprofit 501(c)3 public charity which, in addition to completing an Annual Mission of Honor and Hope, would exist primarily to provide financial assistance to active and retired firefighters battling cancer who are facing a financial hardship. Lorenzo and Peggy cofounded Code 3 for a Cure based on the conviction that no firefighter should have to endure what Lorenzo, and many others like him, have experienced when facing cancer.
In September 2008, Lorenzo underwent his final systoscopy to check for any more cancerous tumors in his bladder. Thankfully, he was declared cured from this second cancer after a 10-year battle that had begun in 1998 with the diagnosis of his first 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 the disease for Lorenzo. 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. Now, 10 years later, he was fighting it himself.
After doing extensive research and talking with doctors and patients alike, Lorenzo made the decision to undergo proton therapy to address the cancer. He felt this was the best course of action for himself due to his rare blood factors and the potential risks involved with surgery. In spring/summer of 2009, he underwent treatment at MD Anderson's Proton Therapy Center in Houston, Texas. The Houston Fire Department opened their 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 treatment. While there, Lorenzo learned of the Firefighter House project which, once complete, will provide a place to stay for firefighters from around the country who are undergoing cancer treatment in the Houston area.
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. Lorenzo met Peggy in 1998, six weeks before he was diagnosed with his first cancer. In 2001, the couple were married in the middle of Times Square, New York on live television on the morning news program "Good Morning America," after the public voted for them as having the most amazing love story. Read about the wedding at
Since their storybook wedding, it has been anything but "storybook" for the couple. In addition to battling three different cancers, Lorenzo has suffered a myriad of other medical calamities, including a herniation caused by his kidney operation, a detached retina (both of which required surgery), and countless trips to the emergency room to address heart related issues.
On September 11, 2008, the IRS issued its determination letter approving the Code 3 for a Cure Foundation as a nonprofit 501(c)3 public charity. Now, the retired Firefighter whom doctors have referred to as "high risk," "a complex case," and a "walking miracle" is answering a different call: help other firefighters who are stricken with cancer.