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Program to study cancer in firefighters expands in county

Butch Smith, a fire captain with Palm Beach County Fire Rescue, has had a difficult fight.

Smith was diagnosed in 2008 with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. But a research partnership between the University of Miami’s Sylvester Cancer Center and South Florida fire departments is giving other firefighters a chance at earlier detection.

“Had I had a simple blood test,” Smith said Monday, “it could’ve caught my disease at a much earlier stage.”

The initiative, which is expanding to more firefighters in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, began last summer, after the Sylvester Center secured funding from the state to study the incidence of cancer in firefighters. Samuel Eaton, county fire-rescue district chief, announced that a health survey initially distributed to county firefighters would be launched to include firefighters at other municipalities.

While firefighters experience higher rates of certain cancers than the general population, doctors haven’t pinpointed the exact carcinogens.

“This initiative is so important for our community and I’m delighted that we can expand this year,” Dr. Stephen Nimer, with the Sylvester Center, said. “Because we really know too little about the magnitude of the problem and why firefighters get cancer at a younger age than others and why there’s more cancer in this community.”

Richard Ballard, CEO of Sylvester Cancer Center, said with an additional $1.5 million in funding from the state in its second year, researchers plan to expand the initiative to Martin, Orange and Hillsborough counties.

Florida Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami-Dade, said he hopes to use the research findings to push a cancer presumption law in the state of Florida. Such a law would assume that firefighters can develop cancer as a result of their job, making it easier to get health and disability benefits. According to the International Association of Fire Fighters, 33 states have cancer presumption laws for firefighters.

“This is not just a Palm Beach County issue, it’s not a Broward County or a Miami-Dade County issue,” said Palm Beach County Fire Chief Jeff Collins. “It’s a national and a global issue.”

The initiative includes multiple components, including the annual survey, screenings for cervical and colorectal cancers, a mobile app for firefighters to document workplace exposures, a program to collect breath and skin samples before and after a firefighter’s shift and an educational campaign with the university’s school of communication to increase awareness, prevention of and early detection of cancer.

The program also has a specific outreach for female firefighters.

Martine Poitevien, an administrator at Sylvester Cancer Center, said unlike many women in the region who may not have access to care, there’s a different reason why female firefighters need an outreach program.

“(For female firefighters) it’s not that they don’t have access to care, but that they don’t have time,” she said. “They’re working 12-hour shifts, they’re taking care of everybody else, they really don’t have time.”

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