What Every Firefighter’s Spouse Should Know About Cancer, Part 2

By Anne Gagliano

Part 1 of this column clearly demonstrated that firefighters are falling victim to cancer at higher rates than the general population. That’s the bad news. The good news is that they tend to be toxin-related, which can be dealt with. Here are some primary ways to do so.


An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Cure

The best way to deal with toxins is not to breathe them in the first place; therefore, firefighters must better manage their air consumption rates at a fire scene. My husband Mike Gagliano’s book, Air Management for the Fire Service (co-authored by Phil Jose, Casey Phillips, and Steve Bernocco), is the only one out there on this topic. These four men have dedicated their lives to preventing the #1 killer of firefighters, smoke, from taking more victims. Their book details ways individual firefighters as well as full companies can better monitor their air supplies during a fire. As my husband and his co-authors have clearly demonstrated through years of research, smoke is now much too deadly to risk breathing; therefore, firefighters must place the same sense of urgency on air levels as a scuba diver. Their methods have been adopted as the national standard for the fire service.

Wives, ask your firefighter if he is wearing his SCBA while the fire is raging and even when it’s just smoldering during overhaul, as the toxins are still present. Where there’s smoke, there’s toxins. Tell him, “I would like to grow old with you, so please manage your air.”  (My husband has affectionately dubbed his reserves “Annie’s Air”). If he has no idea what you’re talking about, you may wish to buy him the book!

Skin absorption also plays a role in firefighter cancers; therefore, bunkers should be washed after every fire. Volunteers, never let your children ride in the car with unwashed bunkers! Put them in the trunk (the bunkers, not the children). And wash those hoods; my husband told me he used to only wash his hood once it was too rank to pull over his head. Now he washes it consistently, as the hood covers the throat; thyroid cancer is on the rise, and this may be why.



Avoidance of toxins with air management and cleansing of protective gear is the first step in preventing cancer; elimination of toxins is the second. The following are vitamins, minerals, and foods that contain cancer-fighting properties. This is a vast, overwhelming topic, but I’ve narrowed it down to a few essentials that are particular to firefighter cancers.

Vitamin D: Vitamin D strengthens the functioning of the body’s “proofreader” gene. The “proofreader” gene discovers and kills errors in cell reproduction before they can replicate; thus, it is our first line of defense against cancer. The body needs 400IU a day if you are under age 60 and 600IU if you are over 60 to produce healthy “proofreader” genes. The very best source of Vitamin D is about 15 minutes of sunshine 3 or more days a week (after 15 minutes, sunscreen should be applied). For those of you who live in places like Seattle, milk and supplements are the next best sources.

Folate: Folate or folic acid (which is part of the B complex vitamin) decreases colon cancer rates by 20 to 50%. Its best food sources are spinach, tomato products, and orange juice, but it is most easily absorbed in supplement form. The amount needed to help prevent colon cancer is 800 micrograms a day, which is tough to get from food alone. The average intake through food is only 275 to 375 micrograms, so you would need to supplement with at least 525 micrograms a day to help prevent colon cancer (which firefighters are two times as likely to get).

Tomato Products: Tomato products help prevent prostate cancer by as much as 30% (they do the same for breast cancer, which is an increased risk for our female firefighters). Tomato products are high in lycopene, which is a carotenoid (carotenoids are antioxidant properties). Carotenoids attach themselves to free radicals, or error cells, and this makes them easier for the body to eliminate. Lycopene in tomatoes is more easily used by the body when cooked with fats such as olive oil or nuts. Ten one-tablespoon servings a week are needed to help prevent prostate cancer, which firefighters are two times as likely to get.

Selenium: Selenium is a trace mineral needed by the body. Its best sources are garlic, fish, and nuts. 100 micrograms a day may reduce cancer rates by as much as 50%. (Do not exceed 1,000 micrograms a day; this may cause selenium poisoning.) Selenium in the correct amounts strengthens the sanitation system in our body that removes toxins we breathe, eat, or absorb through the skin. (Skin cancer—three times as likely.)

Cruciferous Vegetables: Vegetables such as broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower are the best cruciferous vegetables. They contain chemicals that help prevent bladder (three times as likely), kidney (four times as likely), and digestive cancers by as much as 50%. These two chemical compounds are indole-3-carbinol and sulforaphane. The recommended intake for cancer prevention is seven or more nonfried servings (handfuls) a week.

Nuts and Berries: Nuts and berries are consistently ranked as the two highest food sources of antioxidants. All nuts and berries are good, but blueberries, blackberries, walnuts, and pecans are the best. These are small, easily “snackable” foods; we keep a dish of nuts on our counter at all times and set out a container of berries almost daily.

Other Antioxidant Vitamins: 100 to 500 milligrams of Vitamin C, taken twice daily, helps boost the immune system. Good food sources of Vitamin C are citrus fruits, berries, green vegetables, and tomatoes. Vitamin E also has been shown to reduce some cancers. 400 IU of Vitamin E taken daily (with Vitamin C) is recommended. Good sources of Vitamin E include wheat germ, nuts, and vegetable oils.

Aspirin: Experts don’t know how aspirin helps prevent cancer—it just does. It is not only good for the heart and blood pressure by decreasing arterial aging, but it has been shown to reduce colon cancer by 40%, prostate cancer by 40%, and breast cancer by 40%. The recommended daily dose for arterial health and cancer prevention is 162 milligrams a day, or two baby aspirin. To help protect the stomach, take with an 8-oz. glass of warm water.



There are a few cancers that can be tested for, and early detection saves lives. For the general population, these tests are typically not recommended until age 50, but for the firefighter they should be done earlier. Firefighters will resist these procedures, as they are invasive and unpleasant, but it is the spouse’s job to force them to go! I always tell Mike to “do it for me,” and I make the appointments myself! Melanoma (skin cancer) should be checked for once a year. Monitor moles; look for any changes. Prostate cancer testing requires a rectal exam and a PSA blood test, or prostate specific antigen test. (Read “Prostate Cancer: Fighting the ‘Fire’ Within,” by John Gillis, Fire Engineering, December 2007, for an excellent, in-depth look at how to fight and or prevent this disease. John is still alive and well and enjoying his retirement.) Colon cancer can be prevented with a colonoscopy. Female firefighters should get mammograms. Remember, these are some of the cancers they’re prone to, so get regular tests, just in case!

Have this twofold plan in place to prevent cancer: Avoid toxins at work with protective, safe practices, and eliminate toxins from your body at home with a diet rich in antioxidants. Couples already risk so much for the fire service, enduring a career’s worth of dangerous sacrifice for the community. This is enough. Don’t give them your golden years, too.


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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