What I’ve learned documenting the cancer epidemic in the Boston fire department.
18 months ago, my father tripped and fell 15 feet down the concrete stairs that lead to my driveway. He broke his arm and every bone in his face. Only cartilage held his jaw in place.
Less than 5 minutes from calling 911, two fire trucks arrived. One was dispatched to my house; the other heard the call on the radio as they were returning from another emergency, and being so close, came to help.
Because that’s what firefighters do.
Since the winter of 2014, I’ve had the great fortune to work with many firefighters in the Boston Fire Department. They are the most gracious and dedicated group of individuals that I have ever met.
And today I learned that one of them died — not in the line of duty as one would expect — but of cancer.
I interviewed him as part of a project to help the BFD raise awareness about the cancer epidemic that is ravaging fire services around the country and the world.
A firefighter is more likely to die of cancer than in a fire. The deadliest part of the job strikes silently, patiently, after years of carcinogenic fumes and toxic chemicals leech into the bloodstream, the lungs, and the brain.
The flame retardants that coat your furniture, prevent the spread of a fire, and save lives — those same chemicals are a catalyst for cancer. In Boston alone, a firefighter is diagnosed with cancer at a rate 2.5 times the city average.
Let that statistic sink in.
If you faced a 2.5 times risk of being diagnosed with cancer just for showing up at your job, would you show up at all?
And yet that’s what firefighters do every day. They run into burning buildings as we run out. But just because they survive the fire, doesn’t mean they’ll survive the job.
I’ve met the widows. And the sons and daughters who’ve lost fathers and grandfathers. And the friends who’ve buried friends.
I’ve seen the tears in their eyes. I’ve heard them all mourn. But never complain. Not once.
When I interviewed the firefighter who recently died, he spoke more about his family and his firefighter brothers and sisters. He cared less about himself than those he feared he’d leave behind. He spoke of his own mortality with a frankness that comes from years of confronting death on the fire ground.
And he spoke of hope.
Because at the time of the interview, he had hope that the cancer that threatened his life had gone. He was in remission and beating the odds. He was grateful for every extra moment he’d have not just with his wife and children, but his second family in the firehouse.
That extended family grieves today.
The cruelty of cancer, I’ve learned, is that it waits. It retreats, but doesn’t give up.
There are steps firefighters can take to prevent the disease. In Boston — in an unprecedented show of camaraderie — the fire service, city hall, and the union have united to provide better training and equipment to firefighters.
But there are things we — you and me — can do as well.
We can hold our elected officials accountable. It costs more to treat cancer than prevent it. We need to show our leaders the mistakes in their calculations.
We can donate to the firefighter-focused foundations that are providing funding for equipment like industrial washing machines that clean carcinogens from a firefighter’s bunker gear and prevent the spread of deadly toxins.
We can spread the word. My primary care physician had no idea cancer was such an epidemic in the fire service until I told her. She now gives her firefighting patients more screenings for cancer at younger ages because early diagnosis is key for survival.
Cancer may wait. But we can’t. We owe our firefighters more.
The next time you hear a siren wail in the night — remember, there go men and women who are risking their future health and happiness to preserve yours. There go men and women who are driven to show up and help.
Like they helped my dad.
Like they’ll help you.
It’s time we helped them.