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New Massey research partnership to create firefighter cancer registry

Nov 21, 2022

firefighter registry Steve Weissman, Virginia state director of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN) and prostate cancer survivor.

Steve Weissman knew the pain of losing his firefighter colleagues to cancer. It is why Weissman, the Virginia state director of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN), was determined to make sweeping changes for the profession even before he got his own diagnosis in 2016.

“We are seeing these occupational cancers increase in Virginia,” said Weissman, a prostate cancer survivor who retired after 46 years in the fire service. “There are now 43 people that our network is assisting. Carcinogens, those cancer-causing toxins, cling to our personal protective equipment (PPE). They remain on the skin. We breathe it in, we absorb it into our skin, and that becomes problematic.”

Virginia’s FCSN and the Richmond Professional Firefighters Association (RPFA), International Association of Fire Fighters Local 995, reached out to VCU Massey Cancer Center for help studying links between their job and their frequently-diagnosed cancers. They will use the data to support their efforts to lobby for additions to the Virginia Code for occupational diseases. As of 2022, leukemia, pancreatic, prostate, rectal, throat, ovarian, breast, colon, brain and testicular are the only cancers included.

“In my visits with legislators, we have found that they and the medical community didn’t even know this was going on,” said Keith Andes, president of the RPFA. “That is what started it all, connecting the dots. That is where [firefighter advocacy groups] are failing. We need data. That is why we have partnered with Massey.”

Bernard Fuemmeler, Ph.D., M.P.H. Bernard Fuemmeler, Ph.D., M.P.H.

Bernard Fuemmeler, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate director for population sciences and Gordon D. Ginder, M.D., Chair in Cancer Research at Massey, said the prevalence of cancer among firefighters has not garnered enough attention in the past; their repeated exposure to chemicals can cause cellular changes that can eventually lead to cancer.

“At Massey, we are as concerned about cancer prevention as we are trying to find the right drugs to treat cancer,” Fuemmeler explained. “We are proud to partner with our Virginia firefighters, learn more about their experiences and help provide solutions to reduce cancer among this occupational group.”

The research will include the creation of a registry for Virginia firefighters, which is separate from a national cancer registry for the profession. Through a mobile application and website, Fuemmeler and his team hope to track cases and provide education to reduce risk.

“We are building a registry because we want to learn more about the health of our Virginia firefighters,” said Fuemmeler. “By collecting these data and sharing it with our firefighter colleagues, we aim to prevent new cases and drive down rates.”

Fuemmeler also acknowledged the importance of firefighters adopting healthy behaviors like tobacco cessation, eating a healthy diet, exercising, decontaminating their PPE and showering immediately after responding to a scene. Regular medical examinations and screenings are also crucial.

“We know early detection helps tremendously with identification of the cancer and the survival rate,” said Weissman. “We are doing great work with Massey, and hopefully our firefighters will benefit in the future.”

Keith Andes Keith Andes served as a firefighter for more than 35 years.

Andes, who served as a firefighter for more than 35 years, said all firefighters represented by RPFA get a comprehensive physical at the beginning of their career; in recent years, there has been an increase in the number of them receiving a cancer diagnosis at a younger age despite their exams detecting no health problems just a few years earlier.

“When I started out as a firefighter, fires involved wood structures, mattresses, things like that. Now there are more chemicals in paints on furniture and cars. They’re burning at a higher intensity which produces more toxins,” Andes described. “To put it into perspective, the chemicals are still detectable in your hair two weeks after a fire even after shampooing and showering day after day.”

Fuemmeler said for that reason and others, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified occupational exposure as a firefighter as carcinogenic to humans; the change made in July upgraded the classification to Group 1 – the same group as other known carcinogens, like tobacco and cancer-causing viruses.

Weissman and Andes are hopeful the information Massey’s research provides will prompt the General Assembly to offer firefighters more protections.

“Let them know they need to take it seriously,” said Andes.

Written by: Amy Lacey

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