FL Firefighters, Researchers Continue Cancer Initiative

Feb. 12--Samuel Eaton isn't afraid of many things.

A battalion chief for Palm Beach County Fire Rescue, the 52-year-old has made a career of charging into burning buildings and coming out in one piece.

But thinking toward his upcoming birthday, he'll tell you he's deeply concerned.

Eaton lost one of his best friends, a retired fire captain in the department, last year at age 53. After two decades on the force, it wasn't a house fire or a collapsed lung that eventually killed Butch Smith.

It was cancer, an invisible killer that stalks victims for years before revealing itself, often contracted by firefighters through microscopic carcinogens that latch onto fire gear or their skin. It's the leading cause of death among firefighters, and they're twice as likely to contract it than civilians, according to some estimates.

"Everybody thinks about heart and lung [diseases]," Eaton said. "Explosions and fires and things of that nature. Those are all dangerous things, but we're losing our life to cancer. It's not just in retirement. It's young people. There's people in their 20s, their 30s, their 40s, their 50s."

In 2008, Smith was diagnosed with stage four multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, and was given just two years to live.

He lived seven years past that deadline, emboldened by a desire to figure out why firefighters were contracting cancer at a higher rate than the rest of the population and a hope to find a way to prevent further tragedy. He underwent harsh chemotherapy 21 days a month, but the diagnosis served as a wake-up call for Eaton's department and set in motion a series of events that would ultimately lead to a one-of-its-kind cancer-fighting initiative in South Florida.

One year after his death, Smith's memory -- and that of other fallen firefighters in South Florida -- continues to give life to a unique collaboration between firefighters across the state and the University of Miami's Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.

"Butch kind of wanted his life to represent more than a statistic," said Dr. Erin Kobetz, the associate director of the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and the principal investigator of the Firefighter Cancer Initiative. "His diagnosis catalyzed a really important conversation about what was happening as a function of being a firefighter with regard to increasing the risk of developing and dying of cancer."

Combining cancer studies with the development of new prevention protocols and monitoring technologies, the Firefighter Cancer Initiative hopes to figure out exactly what about firefighting leads to a higher rate of cancer, and in the process, spread awareness and save lives. Through partnerships with fire departments in nearly every Florida county and with the state fire marshall, Kobetz's team has worked to change department protocols and distribute thousands of decontamination kits.

And departments across the country are taking notice, she said.

"I think now we're at the forefront of a national conversation about firefighting and risk of cancer, and are really leading efforts to understand what is unique about being a firefighter occupationally that increases the risk of cancer," Kobetz said.

On Saturday, Eaton and Kobetz rode their bicycles 35 miles as part of the annual Dolphins Cancer Challenge in honor of Butch Smith and all cancer victims, finishing inside Hard Rock Stadium, where Eaton and a team of over 65 firefighters presented the center with a UM-themed fire hydrant as a thanks to its commitment to researching firefighter cancer.

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Source : http://www.firehouse.com/news/12397187/firefighters-research-sylvester-cancer-center-initiative-firefighter-news

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