MIAMI (CBSMiami) – They are men and women willing to risk their lives to save ours, but as our CBS4 News investigation found, a silent killer has been wreaking havoc in their lives, their careers, their dreams and destiny. First triggered more than three years ago by the courageous fight against cancer by Miami Dade Fire Rescue Captain Raphael Herrer, CBS4 Chief Investigative Reporter Michele Gillen has been following and reviewing heartbreaking cases across our community and country. Gillen reports on the human tragedy but also on efforts to collect data on the local and national level. The firefighters in Gillen’s story are just a few of the many who are in the fight of their lives and who graciously agreed to share their stories in the hope of finding answers. Also, as a way of honoring those who have lost their lives and who will not be forgotten.
It’s a chilling realization for Miami Dade Fire Captain Bob Carpenter who shared the culprit behind so many of the deaths of his colleagues – cancer.
“There’s a lot of attention for line of duty deaths. Firefighters who die in a burning building, in a collapse – the funerals are on television. The truth is the number of us dying with our boots off is far greater,” said Carpenter.
For Miami Dade Firefighter Leslie Carter, tears flow and words fall with painful reflection.
“Four of us were diagnosed the week I was diagnosed with mine, four of us.”
The diagnosis was cancer, in the case of the 45-year-old it was thyroid.
“Three were thyroid, one was colon, in on week,” said Carter.
Now on the frontline of a different life-or-death battle, Miami-Dade firefighters shared their nightmare with Gillen of cancer diagnosis which seems to haunt firehouse after firehouse.
Miami-Dade Firefighter Paul Hoar, 42, a hero in his ranks, is recognized for his charity work and for his appearance in the Firefighter calendar, was stunned when he got the call from his doctor.
“She says you are at stage three colon cancer and it’s in your lymph nodes and we are going to need to set you up with an oncologist and start chemotherapy,’ said Hoar. “And that just devastated me.”
Surgery removed a tumor and two feet of his colon. He is in his second round of receiving eight months of chemotherapy.
“I ate clean, I exercised, I don’t smoke, I’m active daily so never in a million years did I think that was going to happen to me,” Hoar said.
He’s not alone. Grief has settled across Miami-Dade given seemingly unsettling numbers of firefighters getting diagnosed with cancer and losing the battle.
Keith Tyson is a retired Miami-Dade Firefighter and head of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network for Florida. He spent hours with Gillen reviewing data, collections of cases of the diagnosis of cancer. Tyson knows the nightmare; he’s lived it, diagnosed with prostate and skin cancers.
Now Tyson’s life is about documenting the cases, studying data and death certificates.
“We reached out to United HealthCare, the numbers looking back were staggering. Between the years of 2008 and 2009 and 2010, out of the approximately 2000 members insured by United HealthCare, 32-percent of us had already been diagnosed with some form of cancer,” said Tyson.
“And these are young members for the most part. Cancers in the fire service that are developing are coming earlier for us. And far more aggressive,” said Tyson.
Go to FCSN.net for studies on Florida firefighters diagnosed with cancer.
It is chilling data, and it appears to be emerging nationally.
In one of the most comprehensive federal studies of its kind, that tracked 30,000 firefighters from San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia, the findings are considered daunting. There is evidence of a relation between firefighting and cancer.
The research speaks to the high incidence of solid cancers, such as brain, lung and colon among otherwise very fit firefighters.
Miami-Dade Fire Captain and cancer survivor Bob Carpenter says he sees it day after day.
“In 2013 in the month of December, six members were diagnosed with cancer within that month,” said Carpenter.
Now focus turns to the potential why the toxic soup firefighters are working in may be more toxic than ever.
“The fires that we are fighting today are not the fires of 40 years ago, most of the products in our houses and homes are made up of more than 50-percent of petroleum products. We know that petroleum products are just laced with carcinogens,” said Carpenter.
But it’s not just exposure to chemicals in the field that may be of concern.
The set up for fire houses is also a cause of concern; the bed bunks where the firefighters sleep were often right next to the vehicle bays where diesel fuel regularly filled the air.
Also, lifesaving gear is most often stored right next to the fire trucks and each firefighter only has one set, so even when laden with toxic aftermath of fires and smoke, firefighters often have to turn right around and put them right back on.
Many states have taken action, passing laws to help firefighters struck with cancer–presumed to be linked to their jobs–medical care costs covered by those states.
“There are 33 states across the country right now that have a cancer presumption law. The state of Florida does not,” said Tyson.
Carpenter is hopeful that will change,
“Presumptive legislation that cancer diagnoses are job-connected is what I see in the short-term, by short-term I know we are not talking days but we should not talk about decades either,” said Carpenter.
In the latest fight for those in the trenches saving others, decades are not guaranteed for anyone.
“Firefighting is easy compared to this. You can say this is the fight of my life,” said Hoar.
For more information and support, check out firefightercancersupport.org.