What Every Firefighter’s Spouse Should Know About Cancer, Part 1

Firefighter Mark Noble


By Anne Gagliano

Today I picked up Seattle Fire’s Local 27 newsletter, The Third Rail, to check out some of the things happening in my husband Mike’s world. I always glance through the pictures in hopes of spotting a few faces I recognize—especially his. Typically, I avoid looking too closely at the section for IAFF Line of Duty Deaths (LODDs)—as do most firefighter wives—but this day, for some reason, I’m irresistibly drawn to it. Risking the tears that inevitably follow, I begin to read the names and causes of death. A surprising pattern starts to emerge: Out of the 19 firefighter deaths listed that occurred within just 75 days, only two are from injuries sustained while fighting fires. The 17 remaining LODDs were attributed to the following causes:  two from stroke, three from known heart attacks with an additional four possible (collapses following a shift), and eight from cancer (including liver, bladder, colon, and leukemia). It’s a reality I wish I could ignore, but the statistics are just too alarming to do so. My husband has devoted much of his career to air management as a result of these cancer rates, and through him I, too, have become grudgingly aware of them. Cancer is scary stuff, but I think every firefighter spouse needs to know the stats, and the earlier in your firefighter’s career—the better.

Unique to the firefighter is his work environment. The dangers at a fire scene are obvious: fire, smoke, building collapse, explosions, and so forth. Firefighters can see and study these dangers and thus prepare for them as they have for decades. There is, however, an even deadlier, invisible threat emerging to take center stage—toxins.

Today’s fires involve plastics that are now in everything—flooring, furniture, TVs, appliances, bottles, and even pipes and other building materials. When plastics burn, they typically produce much more smoke and heat than comparable wood products. But worst of all, plastic smoke is more deadly because of the gases it produces. These may include carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, nitrogen oxides, ammonia, phenol, benzene, hydrogen chloride, hydrochloric acid, methane, and the deadliest gas of all—hydrogen cyanide. If breathed in large enough doses, these gases can lead to immediate death and even in the smallest of doses can lead to cancer.

After being diagnosed with brain cancer, Firefighter Mark Noble devoted his remaining time and energy to compiling the statistics below before succumbing to the disease. His courageous work was born from a deep desire to keep firefighters safe. He challenged the fire service to take a closer look at how firefighters are putting themselves and their comrades at risk. Mark’s in-depth research produced the following list, which compares the likelihood of firefighters developing cancer to that of the general population. And though further studies are clarifying these numbers, some going higher and some dipping depending on the study, the point is that risk is elevated. Note that all four of the cancers mentioned in the introduction are on the list:

  • Brain cancer: 3.5 times as likely in firefighters with 10 to 19 years of experience.
  • Leukemia/lymphoma: 3 times as likely.
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma: 2 times as likely.
  • Multiple myeloma: 2.25 times as likely; after 30 years, 10 times as likely.
  • Bladder cancer: 3 times as likely.
  • Kidney cancer: 4 times as likely.
  • Prostate cancer: 2 times as likely.
  • Testicular cancer: 2.5 times as likely.
  • Colorectal cancer (large intestine): 2 times as likely.
  • Liver cancer: 2 times as likely.
  • Skin cancer: 2 times as likely.

Breathing smoke is the primary culprit for these cancer rates, but skin absorption can also play a role. A study done by the University of Cincinnati states:  “We believe there’s a direct correlation between the chemical exposure firefighters experience on the job and their increased risk for cancer.”  Researchers Dr. Grace LeMasters, Dr. James Lockey, and Dr. Ash Genaidy made these assertions in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (Nov. 2006). Their work indicates the need for enhanced protective equipment, in addition to the gear already provided, that would help prevent inhalation and skin exposure to known carcinogens. This study is the largest comprehensive effort related to firefighter cancer done to date.

Simply stated, what firefighters breathe or touch at a fire scene puts them at risk for developing cancer. Combine the hazardous, toxic gases in smoke with the immunosuppressant effects of the fight-or-flight response, and your firefighter becomes a prime target for disease.

It has been clearly demonstrated that firefighters are exposed to cancer-causing toxins and are falling victim at higher rates than the general population. That’s the bad news, the really bad news. Is there any good news on this topic?  Yes, there is!  Because the cancers are toxin related, they can be avoided and we spouses can help. So what do we do?  The first step is to understand the nature of toxins, since they are the primary culprit in firefighter cancers.

Toxins kill normal, healthy cells before their time. This forces your body to have to replace those cells. With a huge influx of toxins, massive amounts of cells are killed, forcing your body to rapidly increase production. We all know that sloppy work can result when it’s done too quickly, and that is exactly how cancer cells are made—from an error resulting in an over-worked system. Once the error is in place, the body replicates the error, and cancer eventually results. This is why toxins are so deadly and why they must either be avoided or quickly removed.

Cancer is a big, scary, overwhelming topic that’s hard to face. It’s much easier to ignore the ugly truth and just “hope” it never happens to your firefighter. But I believe that knowledge is power. It gives you more than just hope; it gives you tools to prevent that which is not simply inevitable. Nobody knows for sure why some people get cancer and others don’t, but we do know these two things:  Toxins play a huge role, and firefighters are prone to certain ones. This gives us a place to start, to narrow the topic down to manageable proportions.

There are very specific steps firefighters can take at work and at home to help prevent cancer down the line. In my next column, I will detail how firefighters can both avoid toxins and remove them.


Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 29 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.


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