RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Doctors at the Massey Cancer Center and representatives with the Virginia Firefighter Cancer Support Network are creating a local registry for firefighters.
The idea came after concerns of more firefighters getting cancer earlier on in their careers. Steve Weissman, the Virginia State Director for the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, said more research and being proactive about lowering the risks are key to staying healthy.
“If firefighters do not perform on scene decontamination of the gear or their skin, we breathe it in. We absorb it and then that becomes problematic,” he said.
Weissman is a cancer survivor who retired after 46 years in the fire service. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2016.
“The last thing you want to hear from a physician is, ‘If we could have only caught it earlier,'” he said.
Firefighters are at a 9% higher risk for cancer than the average person. Weissman said they’re seeing an increased rate of these occupational cancers due to exposure to chemicals and toxins while fighting fires.
That’s why he’s working on a local registry for Virginia that would serve as a resource for cancer prevention, support groups, networking and education. It would be a mobile application and a web portal. It’s volunteer based and any volunteer or career firefighters 18 and older can sign up for it.
Dr. Bernard Fuemmeler said cancer risks are linked to chemicals found in fire crews’ gear and other materials.
“As we started to learn more about risk factors for firefighters, we realized this is an occupational group that’s at high risk for certain types of cancers and there’s certain things we can do to mitigate those risks and prevent those cancers,” he said.
The cancers that firefighters are most at-risk for are: Colon cancer, prostate cancer, testicular cancer and Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Keith Andes, the president of the Richmond Firefighters Association I.A.F.F. Local 995, said recognition of firefighter’s cancer risk is a tough battle across the Commonwealth. Right now, there are only 10 cancers covered under state law. They’re now pushing for more, but they need doctors’ research to connect the dots.
“We still have bladder cancer, thyroid. We’re having skin cancer show up more and more now,” he said.
Andes said one of their goals is to see dedicated funding by a line item in the budget for fighting cancer. Andes is hoping momentum from their research will garner support from local city leaders, so the state government will add more presumptive cancers to the list.
“I’ve lost several good friends that were on the fire department due to occupational cancer. Some of them came under presumptive laws, some didn’t. But each one’s a life that left us way too early,” he said.
Weissman said raising awareness is crucial to helping firefighters identify early signs of cancer for testing and treatment and calls for regular screening for the disease.