Firefighters put their lives on the line every day on the job. But there’s one deadly risk that can strike well into retirement, if not much earlier: cancer.

News | 4 years ago

Fighting Firefighters’ Hidden Battle: Cancer

Firefighters put their lives on the line every day on the job. But there’s one deadly risk that can strike well into retirement, if not much earlier: cancer.

The Charlotte Fire Department (CFD) lost three firefighters to cancer in 2016. Two of them passed in the same week; one was only 35 years old.

It’s a tragedy that’s all too common in the firefighting community. Studies have linked firefighting to a higher risk of developing a variety of cancers, including colon, urinary and lung, among others. Worse yet, it’s a losing battle: Research has shown that firefighters are 14 percent more likely to die from cancer than the average person. Exposure to toxic fumes and dangerous materials can impact their health in ways that may not even show up until they’ve hung up their gear for good.

Battalion Chief Cindy Bonham, who leads health and safety initiatives for CFD, knew something needed to change. So, when she heard about Code T.O.M., Levine Cancer Institute’s free educational program for firefighters, she jumped on the opportunity. 

A lifesaving legacy

Code T.O.M. – short for “Taking On Melanoma” – was created in honor of Tom Robinson, a dedicated husband, father and firefighter who died from advanced melanoma in 2013. His son, James Robinson, an Atrium Health employee and volunteer firefighter, co-founded the program with Atrium Health’s Levine Cancer Institute in 2016.

LCI brings Code T.O.M directly to current and former firefighters at firehouses throughout North and South Carolina. The workshop teaches them to be vigilant about their own health, to know the early symptoms of cancer, and what questions to ask when they see their doctor. LCI also offers firefighters free screenings that can catch cancer early, when it’s easiest to treat – an addition that Chief Bonham calls “huge.”

“We could always be doing more, but we’re in such a better place,” she says. “We owe a lot of that to LCI for what they’re doing.”

Since it launched in 2016, Code T.O.M. has reached more than 1,600 full-time and volunteer firefighters at departments throughout North Carolina. The need for the program has never been clearer.

“Every department we’ve gone to, someone in their department has had a cancer diagnosis,” says Mellisa Wheeler, director of disparities and outreach at LCI, and leader of Code T.O.M. 

A new kind of training

The very first Code T.O.M. training sessions were with CFD, right on the heels of their devastating losses. It was different from other training the department has done, Chief Bonham says. It wasn’t just the first time Charlotte firefighters had the opportunity to discuss their cancer risk with an expert – for some, it was the first time they’d heard about their increased risk at all.

Raising awareness is one of LCI’s – and Chief Bonham’s – major goals. LCI now does a Code T.O.M. workshop with each class of new recruits at CFD, to help instill safer habits at the beginning of their firefighting careers.

Consider how they handle their gear, for example. After responding to a fire, a firefighter’s gear is covered in harmful contaminants – and in the past, they might not have rushed to clean it off.

“We’ve had to change the attitude that dirty gear is cool, that it means I’ve done something,” Chief Bonham says. “I did the same thing. I never washed my gear. I thought it was cool when it was all black and dirty. We just didn’t know what we didn’t know.”

Today, new policies and improved education help firefighters better protect themselves. Each firefighter has two sets of gear, and there’s department-wide protocol for how it’s washed and where it’s stored – all a result of the growing conversation around the topic.

Fighting for the future

Despite increasing interest in the subject nationwide, experts at LCI noticed that concrete information about the link between firefighting and cancer is sparse. And through its work with the fire service community, LCI is uniquely positioned to help take this on.

On Friday, December 7, LCI is hosting its first annual summit, bringing firefighters, researchers and cancer experts together to discuss cancer in the fire service. The goal of the event, which is free to attend, is twofold: to share existing information on the topic and to lay out important next steps.

Phillip Boyles, a firefighter at East Lincoln Fire Department and a cancer survivor, will be among the special guests in attendance. Phillip started as a junior firefighter in 1978 and continued to volunteer until 2013, when he went full-time at the station in Lincoln County.

Just a year later, he suffered crippling back pain that led him to get an MRI. He received the same troubling news as so many of his peers: He had cancer. It was multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer that’s been linked to exposure to toxic chemicals.

Phillip was referred to Saad Usmani, MD, FACP, a hematologist and medical oncologist at LCI who leads the multiple myeloma program. Thankfully, after undergoing a stem cell transplant, Phillip is doing much better – he even continues to serve as a firefighter.

Still, he can’t help but wonder if his cancer would’ve been caught earlier if he’d known then what he knows now. Regular bloodwork can find multiple myeloma early, before it has any symptoms. But there was no Code T.O.M. when he got sick. There was hardly any research on firefighting and cancer at all.

And finally, that’s starting to change.

Carrying the torch

Leading up to the conference, LCI has announced that it will launch a new study of cancer among firefighters in the Carolinas. The summit will be an opportunity for firefighters to ask experts questions, for sure, but it will also be a chance for LCI to learn from the group it intends to help.

The upcoming research, which will include a survey distributed to firefighters in the area, will account for other risk factors for cancer, such as lifestyle and genetics, to ensure that its findings are directly linked to firefighting.

It will also look for patterns among the many different “types” of firefighters – full-time and volunteer, urban and rural, young and old, and so forth – to find out if these differences have any meaningful impact on health.

As of now, there’s no way of knowing what the study will show. But ultimately, its goal is to provide firefighters with expert information that will help them better understand their risk for cancer – and along with Code T.O.M., to make firefighting safer for generations to come.

“A small idea to educate has really blossomed,” says Wheeler. “We’re really excited that we’re able to make the connection and make some change for the fire service.”