FOREST CITY | Ben Neal has only been a member of the Forest City Fire Department for seven months, but he already feels like part of the family.
That family rallied around him when he was diagnosed with cancer in November.
Neal, 25, became emotional when he spoke about what they have done for him.
His fellow firefighters are not only selling T-shirts to raise money to help pay for his expenses, but also finished work on the interior of his new home while he was in the Twin Cities for two months for radiation and chemotherapy.
"I just never knew a group of people who were so willing to help out in any way they could," Neal said.
Neal was heading back to Forest City from the Minneapolis airport after going to Texas to see a Dallas Cowboys home football game in early November when he became extremely nauseous.
"I ended up vomiting blood on the side of the road," he said.
After a trip to the ER and an endoscopic procedure, he was diagnosed with stage 2 Esophageal Adenocarcinoma.
He's one of the youngest individuals on record to have this form of cancer, as the average age is 60 and older.
Neal chose to receive treatment at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis since his sister lives in the Twin Cities.
He received radiation daily, as well as chemo on a weekly basis.
Since he was in the hospital over Christmas, his whole family spent the holiday in the Twin Cities so they could be with him.
Neal was finally released from the hospital on Dec. 29.
Neal, who was raised on a farm north of Rudd and was still farming on the weekends on his own land nearby, said he was thrilled to get back to North Iowa since he's not a big-city guy.
Sometimes what you miss the most are "the little things you don't think about much until they are taken away," such as being able to see open fields all around, Neal said.
When he first got out of the car, he could tell that someone had been spreading manure.
"I never thought that I would miss that smell," he said.
When he was diagnosed with cancer, Neal's new townhouse still needed work done on the interior before he could move in.
In the meantime, he was renting an apartment in Forest City. Neal gave up the apartment when he was diagnosed and had to go to the hospital.
While he was in the Twin Cities for treatment, other Forest City firefighters worked on the flooring and cabinets, while their spouses painted the walls "so I could have a place to live when I came back," Neal said.
After seeing photos of the inside, he and his girlfriend, Madison Shreckengost, finally got to go inside on Jan. 3.
The fire department also decided to design and order shirts for its members to wear and show their support to Neal during his battle with cancer.
The shirt design includes the periwinkle ribbon for esophageal cancer, as well as the Maltese Cross, Neal's badge number, and his nickname, "Load."
After many people asked if they could by a shirt, the fire department decided to sell them, with all proceeds going to support Neal in his fight against cancer.
The shirts are being sold for $20 each. Orders are being taken through the Forest City Fire Department's Facebook page. The deadline to order a shirt is Jan. 19.
Neal is scheduled to undergo surgery on March 4 to have his tumor removed, followed by another six months of bi-monthly chemotherapy treatments.
"We take it one day at a time," Shreckengost said.
Neal, who played football at Waldorf University before transferring to the University of Northern Iowa, said he wasn't a total stranger to the Forest City community when he moved back recently.
However, he said he's overwhelmed by the level of support the town has given him in his time of need and can't thank everyone enough.
"It's really heartwarming," he said.