When you choose a career, you must be aware of potential risks associated with the profession. Firefighters are more likely than the general population to develop certain cancers – a risk we all accepted when we became firefighters.
But not every firefighter will get cancer. Experts believe that the higher cancer rates among firefighters are the result of a combination of exposure and genetic predisposition. Although medical progress has led to improvements in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, prevention remains the best method for decreasing the number of cancer-related deaths. But how do you prevent cancer if your protective gear is insufficient? The answer, of course, is that you can’t. You can only minimize the risk.
Although we take measures to protect ourselves, a 2006 study by the University of Cincinnati suggests that firefighters’ protective equipment is not sufficient to protect them against cancer-causing agents. Researchers found that firefighters are twice as likely to develop testicular cancer and have significantly higher rates of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and prostate cancer than people in other professions. Overall, the study found 10 cancers that were related to fire fighting. This research is the largest comprehensive study to date and concludes that firefighters need better protection.
But if better PPE isn’t affordable or available, what can we do to protect ourselves? Cancer prevention can be divided into primary prevention and secondary prevention. Primary prevention is aimed at stopping a cancer from developing, and includes avoidance of hazards and behavioural changes to decrease individual risk factors for cancer. The nature of our jobs means that we must accept certain risks. We can’t stop responding to emergencies but we can minimize our risk by wearing all the protective gear afforded to us.
Secondary prevention includes techniques that detect early cancer or precancerous conditions so that early interventions can decrease the risk of advanced disease. Medical screening tests are examples of secondary prevention. This is a major reason fire departments need to provide comprehensive medicals for their personnel. How can you put people in harm’s way if you don’t at least provide some safeguards such as medical cancer screening?
Research has demonstrated an increased incidence among firefighters of leukemia, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, bladder cancer, brain cancer, testicular cancer, prostate cancer, large intestine cancer and skin cancers compared to other workers. Many scientists believe that cancer rates among firefighters would be higher if it weren’t for the healthy-worker effect. Firefighters as a group may be more resistant to disease because they are often healthier than the general population. In addition, cancer may be under-reported among firefighters because many firefighters retire at 55 or 60 years of age, and there is a long latency period for several cancers. As a result, firefighters who are diagnosed with cancer after retirement may not be included in the statistics on firefighter cancer.
Still, even if you do everything you can to protect yourself, there’s always a risk. Fortunately for the fire service, the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN) is a wonderful agency designed to help department members and their families by providing support and timely assistance in the event of a cancer diagnosis. The FCSN was founded by Los Angeles county firefighter and cancer survivor Michael Dubron. It was started in the United States but extends into Canada.
The FCSN connects newly diagnosed firefighters with cancer survivors who have experienced similar types and severities of conditions in order to provide comfort, strength and hope through their own experiences with cancer. The FCSN sends out an information package that includes an array of resources, including a daytimer to keep track of medical appointments and Lance Armstrong’s book LIVESTRONG for inspiration. The organization even provides a list of common questions to ask the medical specialists who will inevitably be dealing with your treatment. The FCSN can also provide assistance, education and support to a firefighter’s family members to help them cope with and understand the diagnosis.
The FCSN doesn’t provide legal or medical advice but it can provide assistance and guidance for other support options such as behavioural health services, fire-service organizations, fire-service chaplains and other cancer support programs. The FCSN collaborates with the American Cancer Society and the Lance Armstrong Foundation. It is a very professional agency that is always in need of volunteers. For more information, visit www.firefightercancersupport.org.
Ian Crosby is in his 18th year with the Calgary Fire Department and serves as its wellness and fitness co-ordinator. Crosby developed the department’s Wellness Centre, which opened February 2005. He is a member of the IAFF/IAFC/ACE Peer Fitness Trainer (PFT) Oversight Committee and an instructor for the PFT certification
program. E-mail him at