Syracuse, N.Y. – Firefighters didn’t worry about getting cancer when Tim Downes joined the Syracuse Fire Department in 1985.
He’d wear a helmet and other gear caked in soot, carbon and other toxic residue from fires and think nothing of it. “You were supposed to be salty,” he says.
But in 2008 Downes was diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, part of the body’s germ fighting network. He suspects all the toxic chemicals he was exposed to in the line of duty may have caused his cancer. Downes went through 2 ½ years of treatment and is cancer-free today.
That’s why the retired firefighter helped organize a cancer screening program for city firefighters on Saturday, May 1. It will include a battery of nine different tests at Hematology-Oncology Associates of CNY at 5008 Brittonfield Parkway, East Syracuse. The tests will screen for lung, colorectal, prostate, kidney, bladder and thyroid cancers. Female firefighters also will be offered mammograms to screen for breast cancer. The cost will be fully covered by the city’s health insurance program.
While heart disease is the leading cause of death for the general U.S. population, cancer is the No. 1 killer of firefighters. Firefighters have a 9 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from cancer than the general U.S. population, according to research by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cancer causes about 61% of all U.S. firefighter deaths.
“We think it’s due to line-of-duty exposure,” said Dr. Steven Duffy, a cancer specialist at Hematology-Oncology Associates. “When something is burning there are a lot of harmful chemicals released into the air.”
Downes and others have been working seven years to get comprehensive cancer screening for department members. The effort was sparked by the deaths of three city firefighters in 2014 and 2015. Within a span of 11 months, firefighters Garry Grethel, Thomas Erwin and Alex Cimino – all in their early 50s – died of cancer.
“They left behind seven young kids and three wives,” said Mike Valenti, a Syracuse firefighter. The deaths upset Valenti so much he started the Firefighter Cancer Foundation of NY, a nonprofit group of active and retired city firefighters. That group raises awareness of cancer and helps firefighters and their families.
The foundation worked with the city, Crouse Hospital, CRA Medical Imaging and Hematology-Oncology Associates to create the mass screening program.
Because firefighters are at such high risk, Syracuse lowered the age limits for the routine screenings Saturday so firefighters as young as 40 can participate. The city has 340 firefighters. About 100 are ages 40 to 49, and 62 are ages 50 and older.
Valenti hopes at least 60 firefighters get screened Saturday. Firefighters who can’t make it Saturday can get screened at a later date.
The additional cost to the city’s health plan for all eligible firefighters to get the screenings is $14,400.
Downes said if the screenings catch cancer early they can save lives and save the city money. That’s because it’s much less expensive to treat cancers diagnosed early, he said.
Valenti said no one discussed cancer risks when he became a firefighter 17 years ago.
“Every little kid at one point in their life want to be a firefighter,” Valenti said. “No one wanted to mar that image and say, ‘This job may be killing you.’”
James T. Mulder covers health and higher education. Have a news tip? Contact him at (315) 470-2245 or [email protected]