Fighting the fire of cancer

The Firefighter Cancer Support Network was established in 2005, meaning it was active for five years before the landmark NIOSH study of firefighters revealed that firefighters were twice as likely to develop testicular cancer than men in the general population. FCSN President Bryan Frieders took his leadership role just a few years after the study’s results were released, putting himself at the forefront of the fight to reduce testicular cancer rates among firefighters. This has placed Frieders in an ideal position to direct firefighters’ reactions to positive cancer diagnoses in their ranks and to guide firefighters battling cancer past the usual physical and emotional obstacles that arise when forced to embrace the terrifying new to digest realities of their lives.

So how does an organization navigate its members through such figuratively choppy waters while somehow keeping them motivated enough to risk life and limb to literally spray water on very real fires? Frieders provided factual answers to some crucial questions.

Splice Today: What drew you to become so directly involved in the fight firefighters must fight against cancer?

Bryan Frieders: A good friend of mine in the fire department was diagnosed with cancer and died three months later. It brought the issue of cancer to the fore in the fire service and when we dealt with his death it was devastating for the entire department. It has also opened our eyes to the significant threat posed by our occupation alone. For me it was the desire to get involved and to work for it. As firefighters, it is our job to provide safety and well-being to the public. What we often forget is to take care of ourselves. It was important for me to really get involved and do everything I could to minimize the risk of cancer among firefighters.

ST: Why is the rate of testicular cancer among firefighters so high?

BF: There’s no doubt that testicular cancer has a much greater statistical significance for firefighters than it does for the general population because of what we do, where our equipment is located, and the toxins we are exposed to every day. We walk into an ordinary house and are exposed to more than 265 known carcinogens – and that’s exactly what we know. This is a significant risk that firefighters run every time they enter a burning building.

ST: How challenging was it to introduce the training piece to the fire brigade? Was there resistance or were the firefighters generally open to it?

BF: I think firefighters as a whole have been open to it. The challenge was to get firefighters to understand that some of the things we do and some of the ways we work harm them. In addition, some of the devices we use to protect us from the thermal effects of fire do not protect us from the problems of exposure to carcinogens. The general response was fantastic. We have been supported by all major fire brigade organizations. Since publishing our whitepaper in 2013, we’ve essentially been on a crusade to really emphasize the importance of making sure we decontaminate after fires – we wash our gear and we wear our gear properly.

ST: How quickly have fire departments changed to reduce cancer risk?

BF: Change is difficult in any large organization. I think some of these cultural barriers have been a challenge, but with the high incidence of cancer in the fire service today, many authorities and fire services consider this a top priority. For example, the Boston Fire Department was one of the first organizations to turn to us to educate their members on how to reduce their risk. I think they had a new cancer diagnosis in their department every two weeks. We’ve conducted training for her entire department, and she’s been well received by everyone from brand new firefighters to salty 30-year veterans. Sometimes people don’t want to hear it, but what they eventually realize is that cancer is not the number one threat to firefighter safety today.

ST: What cultural elements of firefighting have contributed to the high rates of cancer among firefighters?

BF: As firefighters, we make it our mission to help others. When it comes to risk management, we often don’t think about ourselves. We develop this “invincible syndrome”. We never believe this will happen to us and when it does we are shocked. Overcoming this superhero syndrome must be one of the top priorities. That was a barrier. People look at cancer and say, “This will never happen to me,” and then it happens. The Fire Department is a very proud organization steeped in tradition, and trying to break some of those invincibility barriers has been a challenge, but we’re making really good progress. As we continue the education programs, the advocacy programs, and the research across the country, we will be able to better understand what we can do to at least reduce our risk.

ST: What services does your organization offer to reduce these risks and help firefighters after they have been diagnosed with cancer?

BF: The Firefighter Cancer Support Network provides personal mentors to diagnosed firefighters and their immediate families. When a firefighter is diagnosed with cancer, we match them with one of our mentors – we have 250 mentors across the country – who have survived the cancer. We put them in contact with each other and the mentor helps the newly diagnosed firefighter. As you can imagine, it is a very lonely and scary situation to be in and having a lawyer by your side helps ease that pain.

We also send them a tool box with all kinds of stuff in it, and it’s also a place to organize their lab work and other information so they can stay organized – lab tests, X-ray results, all that stuff. We have the Firefighter’s Guide to Cancer Survivorship. It’s a 265-page book that we published in partnership with the American Cancer Society that helps firefighters go through some of the challenges they face during their treatment. It also helps them record their challenges. There is a guide for the caregivers and family members who will be taking on significant responsibilities and responsibilities as a result of the firefighter’s incapacity. A great book of which we are very proud.

ST: Are there things you do other than helping the affected firefighters directly?

BF: We support research across the country. We champion research when it comes to firefighters with cancer. We have a lot of information about what the issues surrounding cancer diagnoses are and why things happen. The last part is our education and training program. We run a nationwide education program that helps firefighters understand their risks and trains their staff to become trainers, so we use the force multiplier technique to try to spread the information for firefighter safety.

ST: What’s the trade-off between protecting firefighters from thermal injury and protecting them from cancer?

BF: When we designed the emergency equipment for firefighters, it was specifically designed to protect us from the heat and flame when entering a burning building. We never knew that the emergency equipment had to protect us from more. So when you wear turnout gear, many of these toxins penetrate under the point where the coat and boots meet, or at the interface between the coat and pants, and they get into our skin. When we sweat during firefighting operations, which is a very strenuous task, these harmful materials are absorbed into our skin. One of the things we advocate for firefighters is to get the stuff off their skin as soon as the fire is over, so we encourage people to shower within an hour and use wipes to get the stuff off their skin remove to perform what is known as gross decontamination, ie hosing down all of your equipment when exiting the structure and then thoroughly washing your operational equipment once they have returned to the station to replace everything. There isn’t really a good solution other than trying to reduce your risk. This is a significant problem and many equipment manufacturers are looking for ways to improve this, but they have yet to find a sensible solution that will allow firefighters to get the job done without compromising their ability to stay healthy. This is one of the most important issues we are dealing with. It is a multifactorial problem with no simple solution. Firefighters will continue to be firefighters regardless of how confident we can make the results of the work.

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