CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — Every day, firefighters risk their lives to keep us safe, but cancer presents deadly and invisible risks.
January is Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month. According to studies from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, firefighters have a 9% greater chance of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14% greater chance of dying from cancer than the general U.S. population.
Warrenville Chief Andy Dina, now 10 years in remission, was diagnosed with cancer in 2010.
“The first thought that comes to your head is, you know, am I gonna die from this,” he recalls. “You know, how long do I have to live?”
Dina was diagnosed at the age of 46.
“Obviously, I was scared. I had a young family, you know, I was married and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know where to turn to.”
Ultimately, he found support from his brothers and sisters in the fire service, and through the Firefighter Cancer Support Network.
“We are here to help,” he says. “I could provide a million examples of how that brotherhood and how that sisterhood works, because not only was I diagnosed with cancer, but four years later, my wife was diagnosed with cancer.”
His wife’s treatments for breast cancer were in Chicago, and Dina was worried about how he’d be able to take her to the city every day.
“But sure enough, the fire service, the brotherhood and the sisterhood, everybody stepped up to a point where I got to drive my wife to the first appointment and to the last appointment,” he says. “In every other spot in between was built up by mostly fire service members.”
Dina also now offers a class on cancer prevention and awareness at the Illinois Fire Service Institute.
He’s not the only one there working to keep firefighters safe from cancer.
Dr. Farzaneh Masoud’s research helps firefighters reduce their exposure to carcinogens.
“It’s not just that they’re breathing those chemicals, they’re also being exposed to it in a lot of different ways,” she says.
Firefighters are exposed to every different kind of cancer, through inhalation, through chemicals landing on their gear and through exposed skin. It can be a danger to the rest of their communities.
“They can take it to their whole family and then they can all get exposed to it,” Masoud says. “It’s a misconception that only firefighters are being exposed to carcinogenic factors. But we are finding that a lot of these carcinogenic factors are hanging out in the air and downstream from where the fire is.”
Masoud says masks can help prevent inhalation of cancer-causing chemicals. She also says people should shower as quickly as possible after exposure and carefully remove and wash clothing. Dishwashing soap can remove roughly 80% of the compounds.
Masoud calls her research at IFSI rewarding.
“The responsibility of that as a scientist, to know that you can actually give back to the community and to the people who mean the most – you keep them safe, they keep you safe – it’s a very rewarding task,” she says.