ReIGNITE Quick Take: Survivors on how to deal with cancer in your department

Deputy Chief David Windrow relays his experience overcoming cancer and explains how leadership can support members during such a vulnerable time


During a virtual session at the IAFC Fire-Rescue International ReIGNITE 2020 conference, Brentwood (Tenn.) Fire-Rescue Deputy Chief David Windrow joked that he was not an expert in cancer, he just had a lot of experience with it.

A Stage 4 Multiple Myeloma cancer survivor, transplant recipient and a fire leader, Windrow is uniquely situated to discuss occupational cancer in the fire service and how to support a fellow firefighter after a diagnosis.

Memorable quotes about firefighter cancer odds and offering support

“Early detection is the key. Stage 1 is the way to reduce costs and save lives.” – Brentwood (Tenn.) Fire-Rescue Deputy Chief David Windrow
“Early detection is the key. Stage 1 is the way to reduce costs and save lives.” – Brentwood (Tenn.) Fire-Rescue Deputy Chief David Windrow (Getty Images)

The following are poignant comments from Windrow on supporting members through a cancer diagnosis.

“Can we lessen the blow for at least one of our members who may come down with cancer?”

“It’s not a question of ‘if,’ but ‘when’ somebody’s going to get cancer.”

“Risks come from unknown places at times.”

“Early detection is the key. Stage 1 is the way to reduce costs and save lives.”

Top takeaways about firefighter cancer survival

Windrow’s session focused on cancer risk awareness, an overview of the treatment process after diagnosis, how to prepare the organization prior to a diagnosis and members who fly under the radar when it comes to cancer prevention.

Here are the three top takeaways to help prepare fire chiefs and department leaders to better understand what a cancer diagnosis means for the station.

1. How big is the problem?

According to the American Cancer Society, 1 in 3 males in the general population will get cancer and 1 in 5 will die, compared to 1 in 2 male firefighters who will be diagnosed with cancer and 1 in 3 who will die.

The most problematic cancer types for firefighters include:

  • Mesothelioma
  • Esophageal
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Testicular
  • Breast cancer

2. Who gets overlooked when it comes to screening firefighters for cancer?

  • Training staff
  • Fire investigators
  • Drivers
  • Overhaul

3. What can fire chiefs do to support firefighters through a cancer diagnosis?

Windrow offered the following tips for chiefs looking to support their members who have been diagnosed with cancer:

  • Offer support. Help your firefighters find a comfort zone, something that “brings them great joy or peace”
  • Encourage counsel. Offer to accompany them to a support group 

6 firefighter cancer support processes to implement at your organization

Implement the following 6 processes to identify cancer in your members and support them through a diagnosis.

  1. Medical exams. Encourage annual medical exams and elective blood test checks for cancer markers
  2. Sick leave donation. The ability to donate sick leave makes it easier when a diagnosis requires a lengthy treatment plan
  3. Supplemental insurance. Having supplemental insurance helps close the financial gap in the event a member cannot work for long periods of time
  4. Unlimited swaps. Allowing for unlimited or long-term shift swaps allows members more flexibility
  5. Public safety trust fund. Putting auxiliary donations in a public safety trust fund benefits members facing financial hardships
  6. NFF’s “Taking Care of Our Own” program. The National Fallen Firefighter’s "Taking Care of Our Own” program offers guidance for department members and their families on the risks of the fire service and how to prepare 

Additional resources for firefighters about occupational cancer

For more information about how the fire service is working to prevent and raise awareness about occupational cancer, read these FireRescue1 resources:

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