The sun shone brightly over Station 11 as friends and colleagues welcomed Tyler Gilliam, cancer free after an 18-month battle with the disease, back to work. “I knew one day I’d be standing here again,” he told onlookers. “This is one of the happiest days of my life.” It marked the end of a long journey for Gilliam, who — after receiving a surprise diagnosis in February 2009 — has undergone six rounds of chemotherapy, five surgeries, and two stem cell transplants.
It’s enough to change anyone’s lease on life, and to all who ask, Gilliam is living his one minute at a time — a philosophy he demonstrated by bolting mid-sentence to answer the first call that came into the station. Clearly at home, he slid into his fire uniform like a seal into water. “It’s an uplifting feeling to have one of our family members back,” said Fire Chief Michael Dyer. “Tyler lives in all of us.”
This camaraderie runs deep among the Santa Barbara firefighters, many of whom donated sick time, meals, and rides to Los Angeles for Gilliam’s treatment. Four men went the extra mile — literally — and completed a three-day, 94-mile run to the UCLA Cancer Ward, visiting their friend at one of the lowest points in his illness. One such marathoner, Ryan Riddle, believes that their test of endurance was a way to share the pain that Gilliam was experiencing, and to pay tribute to his strength.
In retrospect, Gilliam credits the ceaseless support of his colleagues — and related groups, the Firefighter’s Cancer Support Network and Santa Barbara County Benevolent Foundation — for easing some of the burden. “You always know they have your back,” he says of his firefighting family. “But you never think you’ll be the one who will have to rely on it.”
For many members of this family, Gilliam’s story hits close to home. Firefighters are reportedly at higher risk for developing cancer than the average person, and Gilliam’s bout with the disease has served as a grim reminder. “We all feel that we’re fighting with him,” says Dyer. However, Gilliam’s story has a happy ending, and it has affected those around him in a positive way.
To stay optimistic through his ordeal, Gilliam took comfort in the shared experiences of others — as he put it, there is “hardly anyone anymore” who has not been directly affected by cancer. He also read the testimonies of Lance Armstrong — like himself, a survivor of testicular cancer — whose success only multiplied after his bout with the disease. As Gilliam stands with his hands in his pockets, a glimpse of Armstrong’s yellow “Live Strong” bracelet can be seen peeking over the fabric.
No one knows better than a firefighter that the winds can change at any second. When Gilliam was diagnosed with cancer, he was shuttled into surgery 24 hours later — not even enough time to reach his father on the phone. Though life has settled for now, Gilliam returning to work and reaching what he calls the “light at the end of the tunnel,” his in-the-moment philosophy keeps him appreciative of each small progress.
Since returning to the station, Gilliam has been climbing the same flight of stairs each day. “When I first got back, I had to take the stairs one at a time,” he says. “Now I can fly up without even thinking about it.” It’s a small way that this firefighter — given the hero’s welcome by Santa Barbara County — is continuing to measure life minute-by-minute, one day at a time.