As a 40-year veteran firefighter, Phil Hunderman knows how to put out fires.

Like the rapid response he provides to others when an emergency arises, he thankfully responded quickly to his own medical issues, and caught them before smoldering cancer cells became a full-blown fatal fire.

“I was noticing some changes in bowel movements and stomach ingestion,” said Hunderman, now 59. “I was hearing noises down there. Gurgling, like somebody’s stomach growling but mine was doing it more frequently.”

Like an alarm that echoes in his Grand Rapids Fire Department Franklin Street station, the symptoms alerted Hunderman that something was amiss.

He hadn’t been a model patient about getting his colonoscopy in his early 50s. He regrets it now.

“That kind of triggered me to think ‘maybe you ought to look things over,’” Hunderman said. “I sensed things were different.”

The Zeeland, Michigan, resident scheduled a colonoscopy at Spectrum Health Zeeland Community Hospital.

“It was the usual ceremony,” Hunderman said. “You drink all that jazz. I didn’t have much discomfort as far as pain, even prior to my colonoscopy. But they noticed there were issues right away.”

“Issues” is a six-letter word. But Hunderman learned he was dealing with a much more serious six-letter word.

Doctors told him that same day. He had cancer.

“That was kind of a bomb dropped right there,” Hunderman said.

But his firefighting training served him well. He didn’t panic. He took things day by day, and did what he had to do to get better.

“I’m not very excitable,” he said. “I’m a ‘that’s the way it is’ type of guy. I’ve been firefighting for a lot of years. Here’s a bad story, and then you go.”

He was ultimately referred to Rebecca Hoedema, MD, a Spectrum Health Medical Group colorectal surgeon.

“They got me in relatively quickly,” Hunderman said.

Hunderman underwent surgery at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital.

“It was supposed to take two hours and it turned out to be six hours,” Hunderman said.

Dr. Hoedema said Hunderman is fortunate.

“Luckily, the cancer was caught early, Stage 1, which is rather unusual for rectal cancer,” Dr. Hoedema said. “Typically it is caught later when symptoms arise and persist for a while with eventual need for a colonoscopy. But in Phil’s case, he knew he needed a colonoscopy and, with the first start of any changes, he alerted his physician. His rectal cancer diagnosis was caught early and cured.”

Robotic surgery was a perfect solution because of Hunderman’s height.

“The robotic surgery helped with his case given that we were dealing with a rectal cancer in a tall male patient, so it helped with the technical aspect of the case,” Dr. Hoedema said. “It also helped speed his post-surgery recovery and he was discharged home very soon. He has recovered well. He follows up regularly and has no sign of recurrence almost three years from his diagnosis.”

Hunderman called the surgery “a piece of cake.” He returned to firefighting just six weeks later.

“I didn’t need chemo or radiation. I have to have colonoscopy followups at six-month intervals and go in every six months to have my blood drawn to make sure my levels are what they should be and there are no cancer signs in my blood.”

Just as Hunderman is big on teaching about fire prevention, he’s now an advocate for cancer prevention.

“Shame on me for not going in for a colonoscopy when I was in my early 50s,” he said. “I’m sorry I didn’t. If there’s anything to pull out of this whole thing, go in early and get checked.”

Hunderman said Dr. Hoedema removed about a foot of his colon.

“It could have been a lot worse,” he said. “I’m thankful it isn’t. I don’t know how I got so blessed that I have a good story to tell.”