Getting Screened Can Be a Matter of Life and Death

Courtesy of Roswell Park Cancer Talk Blog

Firefighters and first responders who run into burning buildings have a dangerous job in more ways than one. Along with endangering their lives, their occupation also puts them at higher risk for several kinds of cancer, including myeloma, lymphoma, and cancer in the breast, lungs, skin, liver, testes, and other organs.

Mary Reid, MSPH, PhD, Chief of Cancer Screening, Survivorship, and Mentorship at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center (Roswell Park) says that firefighters get exposed to highly flammable chemicals that often emit gasses containing arsenic, petrol, and diesel, even when properly using their masks and respirators. This is because fire breaks the chemical bonds that hold together different compounds, which can be inhaled into a person’s lungs causing inflammation that could lead to cancer. The chemicals enter their system, become metabolized, and accumulate in the organs and also enter through the skin. The more hours a firefighter works, the higher their risk.

Roswell Park has teamed up with Firefighter Cancer Foundation of NY, an organization started by Syracuse firefighter Mike Valenti, to encourage first responders to schedule their cancer screenings. Valenti started the organization following the deaths of three longtime Syracuse firefighters in their early 50s, who lost their lives to cancer in less than a year. While it used to be a badge of honor to be the dirtiest person at a fire because it showed you worked hard, firefighters are now being taught about the hazards of their job.

However, urging firefighters to get screened isn’t easy. They are people who are tough and risk their lives daily, but need to take care of themselves. Reid says, “They can come into Roswell Park, and we’ll look at the entire person, their skin, do a full physical, help with bloodwork, and get them into any screenings they need.” The screenings are also being provided to firefighters at earlier ages through changes in their health insurance that guarantees coverage for screening. Valenti is teaching them that diagnosis can be the difference between life and death. Meanwhile, Reid notes that the stress of firefighters’ high-stress jobs increases their risk for chronic inflammation, which can lead to cancer.

Firefighters are also being taught to properly use and clean their equipment. Regarding a recent fire in the Bronx, Valenti said that he saw firefighters bundled up, but didn’t see them wearing their respirators in a very smoky environment. He said when equipment is not cleaned properly, chemicals from smoke linger and get inhaled, and that the longer firefighters are on the job, the greater the chance for cancer-causing chemicals to build up in their bodies. Valenti urges all firefighters and first responders to keep up on their screenings, noting that there is a five-year window after retirement, after which they cannot say that their cancer is job-related. He also tells those who express fear or concerns about screening results that it is better to know and find out early, than to let a problem go untreated.

To schedule a screening with Roswell Park, call 1-800-ROSWELL (1-800-767-9355), or fill out a form at