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Conference features research project to support firefighters with cancer

VCU Massey Cancer Center’s Virginia Firefighters for Lifelong Health registry aims to create a pathway to better understand health care needs for firefighters.

Young man smiling in a bed. He is sick, but positive. He is holding up his hand with a thumbs up. Firefighter and two-time cancer survivor Luis Salazar supports efforts to make additions to the Virginia Code for occupational diseases. (Luis Salazar)

By Amy Lacey

Luis Salazar’s cancer journey began when he was 28 years old and a ten-year veteran of the fire service.

“I was first diagnosed at the end of 2018, early 2019, with testicular cancer,” Salazar said. “I had surgery and a few rounds of chemotherapy. Eighteen months later, they found a tumor on the top of my bladder. Luckily, I was able to keep part of it. The cancer did spread into my lymph nodes, so we are keeping a close eye on it with regular screenings. But every six months, it's a flip of a coin, whether it comes back or not.”

Salazar, a firefighter with Prince William County Fire and Rescue, shared his experiences at the Occupational Cancer and Behavioral Health Symposium held May 31 in Richmond. Two hundred firefighters from departments across Virginia and Maryland registered to attend.

The symposium included a presentation about the Virginia Firefighters for Lifelong Health registry, a research initiative by VCU Massey Cancer Center, the Firefighter Cancer Support Network - Virginia (FCSN) and other partners.

Using a mobile app and web portal to survey Virginia firefighters, the registry will generate data to help mitigate cancer risk. It creates a pathway for better understanding the health needs of firefighters and identifying better strategies for providing education and prevention materials to men and women in the fire service.

Bernard Fuemmeler, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate director for population science and the Gordon D. Ginder, M.D., chair in cancer research at Massey Cancer Center, is the co-principal investigator of Virginia Firefighters for Lifelong Health study.

“We want to better serve you and are looking for ways to enroll more firefighters in the registry,” Fuemmeler explained to the audience. “Local data will help our fire service partners to advocate on your behalf and help inform policies to help Virginia firefighters.”

Man in a suit standing at a podium speaking to a crowd.

Bernard Fuemmeler, Ph.D., M.P.H., presents information about the Virginia Firefighters for Lifelong Health registry. (VCU Massey Cancer Center)

The FCSN and other firefighter organizations plan to use the data to lobby for additions to the Virginia Code for occupational diseases; currently, leukemia, pancreatic, prostate, rectal, throat, ovarian, breast, colon, brain and testicular are the only cancers included. Steve Weissman, the Virginia state director of FCSN, said there has been an increase in occupational cancers in firefighters linked to their exposure to chemicals while responding to calls.

Weissman called an update Virginia state law “critical” to the physical, mental and emotional well-being of firefighters who receive a cancer diagnosis. While Weissman was in treatment for prostate cancer in 2016, he was also involved in a workers’ compensation trial and lengthy appeals process.

“Here I am diagnosed with cancer and I felt beaten up,” Weissman said. “It was a very sobering experience for me.”

Salazar added, “We're not just numbers. We’re people with families. We are there for the public on the worst of days, but we also want to be able to enjoy a long life. If the Virginia legislature supports an increase of coverage and funding, it will ensure that we’re able to enjoy not just our current life situation but also in the long term for retirement.”

Salazar says he completed the Virginia Firefighters for Lifelong Health survey the first day it was released in February. He applauded Massey’s commitment to the fire service.

“Personally, I know of two firefighters who found cancer early because of our Massey partnership,” Salazar said. “Early detection means early treatment and that's great for them, for their family and for the future.”

Jim Burch, Ph.D., member of the Cancer Prevention and Control research program at Massey and professor in the Division of Epidemiology in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health at the VCU School of Medicine, is the registry’s co-principal investigator. Trevin E. Glasgow, Ph.D., Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health at the VCU School of Medicine, is a co-investigator.

The symposium was supported by a $5,000 VCU Massey Cancer Center seed grant awarded to the FCSN in February; the funding is part of Massey’s Community Grant Initiative, which launched in December 2021.