The Debate on Presumptive Cancer

By P. Jordan Steel

Utter the words “presumptive cancer law” and many firefighters can tell you instantly whether their state offers this legal protection to its firefighters; this is because the majority of states in the U.S. as well as provinces in Canada offer protection to their firefighters by having laws in place that say certain types of cancer are presumed to be job related unless evidence is offered that proves otherwise.

These laws vary. For many, there are waiting periods that requires an individual to have been employed five or possibly 10 years before the protection is in effect. Other states have laws that only require that a firefighter was found to be cancer free in a preemployment physical. According to the International Association of Fire Fighters, some states offer what could be considered a blanket protection against cancer, while others have very specific criteria that must be met to qualify. For example, the state of South Carolina requires only an impairment caused by cancer, while the state of Connecticut covers only four specific types of cancer: Kahler’s Disease, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, prostate, and testicular.

For those who believe that these laws will protect them from stress and legal entanglements when claiming disability because of cancer, take heed. Many states have a provision in their law which may provide the employer a basis to fight to deny the benefits provided under the presumptive laws. These limiting provisions often include tobacco use but may also include physical fitness, weight, or even a hereditary condition. In recent years, municipalities have become more aggressive in fighting claims made under these presumptive cancer laws. Some municipalities even prohibit the use of tobacco by firefighters, on and off duty. The City of Appleton, Wisconsin (my employer), has had such a ban in effect for more than 20 years. During this period, several firefighters faced discipline for off-duty tobacco use and have received penalties including suspension, demotion and, in one case, termination.

Another example of actions being taken by a municipality was reported in the February 22, 2014, edition of The Baltimore Sun. The article tells the story of Mary McElroy, a 22-year veteran firefighter/paramedic who received an award from the state’s Worker Compensation Commission for breast cancer, which was presumed to be job related under the state’s presumptive cancer law. The City of Baltimore has filed suit in circuit court to challenge the award.

A recent study, which appeared in the March 4, 2014, issue of Forbes Magazine, should be a red flag to every firefighter. The article, entitled “Why High Protein Diets May Be Linked to Cancer Risks,” discusses a study published in Cell Metabolism,  which found that middle-aged individuals who ate a high-protein diet had a four times greater risk of dying from cancer than those on a low-protein diet. It pointed out that even those on a moderate-protein diet were at a three times greater risk of dying of cancer. Of particular significance was the fact the study found that the type of protein consumed played a big part in the results. When animal protein was removed from the diet and the individual’s intake of protein was from plant sources, the risk of cancer was reduced significantly. The article pointed out that the vast majority of people will at some point in their life, have cancerous or precancerous cells in their bodies. The question becomes whether or not the cancer will progress. The study found that the answer is largely related to the consumption of animal protein. These findings confirm what T. Colin Campbell documented in his groundbreaking book, The China Study. The book was inspired by the China-Cornell-Oxford Project, one of the largest studies of the effects of nutrition on cancer and other chronic conditions ever conducted.

With mounting scientific evidence linking the consumption of meat and dairy to cancer, it is only a matter of time until employers begin to use the standard firehouse diet as their tool of choice to fight claims made under presumptive cancer laws. In 2013, the state of Maryland found that a 16-year veteran of the Baltimore Fire Department’s colon cancer was job related. According to The Baltimore Sun, the firefighter has yet to file a claim with the county. It reported that the firefighter said that his diet did not contribute to the cancer.

It is clear that the city of Baltimore is poised to be aggressive in challenging claims made under the presumptive cancer laws. It should come as no surprise that, if a claim is filed and subsequently challenged, a firehouse diet high in animal protein (i.e., meat and dairy) will be front and center in the employer’s case to discredit the claim. As every career firefighter reading this article knows, in most firehouses around the country, when the dinner bell rings, the firefighters will usually be presented with a meal built around meat and dairy. In a court of law, it will be hard to refute this fact. Because it would be unrealistic for fire departments to order their members to abstain from eating meat and dairy, the departments’ recourse will be to use the firehouse diet as evidence to refute presumptive cancer claims.

The presumptive cancer benefit is clearly now under attack. Therefore, it is more important than ever before for firefighters to take steps to protect themselves and the benefits that many have worked so hard to secure. With the potential of fire departments to use the consumption of meat and dairy protein as ammunition against presumptive cancer claims, it is only logical that firefighters work to reduce or eliminate animal protein from their diets, replacing it with healthy whole food, plant-based protein. By taking this step, the fire departments would not have a firefighter’s diet to use against them to try and deny a claim made under the presumptive law. In addition, if a firefighter were then to get his protein from healthy plant sources such as green leafy vegetables, whole grains, beans, and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and brussels sprouts, he would be provided with additional powerful protection against cancer as well as attacks on his presumptive benefits. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, these foods are not only an excellent source of protein, but they as well as other fruits, vegetables, and nuts provide powerful protection against cancer.

With the benefits provided by presumptive cancer laws under attack, the one-two punch of reducing or eliminating the cancer causing animal protein and replacing it in your diet with the healthy cancer fighting protein provided from a whole food, plant-based diet is the best bet to ensure that your rights are protected. Of course, by making these changes, you will have greatly reduced your chance of getting cancer in the first place. And isn’t a healthy, cancer free life a whole lot better than just receiving a disability benefit? Food for thought.

Photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Nathanael T. Miller.


P. Jordan Steel is a 19-year veteran and a captain of the city of Appleton (WI) Fire Department. Steel has a bachelor of science degree in business from Florida State University and is a certified nutritional health coach, having studied at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition. He is also a certified personal trainer. Through his company, Generations of Health, Steell shares the message of nutritional excellence to organizations and fellow firefighters.

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