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N.H. bill could extend cancer screenings for full-time firefighters

Approximately 4,000 firefighters would be eligible for screening if legislation passes


The New Hampshire State House.


By Shawne Wickham
The New Hampshire Union Leader

CONCORD, N.H. — Like most veteran firefighters, Peter Lennon knew that cancer was an occupational risk.

Still, Lennon, who is the fire marshal for Manchester Fire Department , wasn’t prepared for the results of a cancer-detection screening his department offered last fall, a pilot program that was a first in New Hampshire.

Lennon had stage 2 colon cancer.

Firefighters are accustomed to taking risks the rest of us would never dare. But they increasingly find themselves battling a threat not from the outside, such as a fire or building collapse, but from inside their own bodies, caused by the work they do to save others.

Occupation-related cancer is now the leading cause of death in the fire service. The International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2022 declared occupational exposure during firefighting to be a “group 1 carcinogen,” meaning it causes cancer in humans, akin to tobacco and benzene.

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Just weeks after his screening test, Lennon, who is 45, underwent surgery. “They took out a foot of my colon and took out 25 of my lymph nodes,” he said.

Doctors told him that if the cancer had gone undiagnosed much longer, his life expectancy would have been three or four years. Instead, he’s cancer-free.

“It was very emotional,” Lennon said. “By the time the symptoms would have developed ... it would have been essentially too late.”

As more research has shown a direct link between the toxins they encounter on the job — and even in the gear they wear to protect themselves — firefighters are raising their collective voice to call for change. “We’re learning more about it and we’re being louder about it,” said Brian Ryll , president of Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire (PFFNH).

People are listening

The state Senate last month voted 24-0 for a two-year pilot program to offer voluntary comprehensive early-detection cancer screening for all active and retired permanent firefighters. The screening would include a blood test, an ultrasound of vital organs, a lung CT if indicated, and a skin cancer screening.

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The law would provide up to $5 million to cover the costs over the next biennium.

If the bill passes the House, New Hampshire would be the second state, after New Jersey, to extend this screening to full-time firefighters statewide. Approximately 4,000 firefighters would be eligible for the screening, according to Ryll.

Sen Sharon Carson, R- R-Londonderry, the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 352, said she wants to send a message to those in the fire service: “That we care about them and the work that they do, and we want them to stay healthy.”

Carson said she hopes one outcome of the pilot program will be that insurance companies recognize it makes sense to cover these screenings for all firefighters. “You’re spending money up front to really ensure that someone’s healthy, rather than spending a heck of a lot of money when they get sick,” she said.

Last week, the Executive Council approved using $50,000 in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to provide cancer screenings for delegates at PFFNH’s May convention. Gov. Chris Sununu called it a “beta test” for the statewide screening proposed in the Senate bill.

“I think it’s really great that the state has stepped up to say they think firefighters are important, and they want to make sure they have long, healthy lives,” said Russell Osgood , who served for 26 years with the Portsmouth Fire Department and retired as a lieutenant.

“Firefighters put in a lot of time and effort, and give back to the community and unfortunately a lot of the stuff we’re exposed to has a negative effect,” said Osgood, who is now fire chief in Ogunquit, Maine , and vice president for education at Firefighter Cancer Support Network, which provides support for firefighters diagnosed with cancer.

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Osgood, who teaches cancer prevention classes for fire departments around the country, used to ask people to raise their hands if they knew someone with cancer.

These days, he asks a different question: Does anyone in the room not know anyone who has been affected by cancer?

Almost always, he said, no one raises their hand. “Nobody.”

Indeed, if you ask, firefighters have stories of deep personal loss to share.

‘We have to do more’

Lt. Chris Wyman, the fire inspector for Merrimack Fire Department, lost his wife to lung cancer last November, two days before their 27th wedding anniversary.

Jessica Wyman, who was a lieutenant with Nashua Fire Department, retired from the fire service in 2017 and went to work at Southern New Hampshire Medical Center as a nurse.

She started feeling sick in the fall of 2022, her husband said. Doctors at first thought she had pneumonia, but when she didn’t improve with treatment, they sent her for a chest CT scan.

On Jan. 5, 2023, the Wymans got the word: Jessica, who had never smoked, had lung cancer. “By the time they diagnosed her and did the testing, she was Stage 4 with metastatic cancer to her bones,” Wyman said.

Jessica underwent chemotherapy and radiation, but it was too late. She died on Nov. 28.

“Jess was an amazing person,” Wyman said. “She had a love for life. She had a love for the job of being a firefighter. She would do anything for anyone, really.”

Now, in her memory, her husband is pushing for early detection screening, sharing his heartbreak with others in hopes that things will change. “We have to do more,” Wyman said.

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“I don’t want to be the poster child for this, but if I have to do this to protect my brothers and sisters in the fire service, that’s what both Jess and I would want,” said Wyman, who is first vice president for the New Hampshire State Firemen’s Association. That organization, which represents call and volunteer firefighters, also supports the screening legislation.

The PFFNH’s Ryll said the 2019 death of his friend, Newington Fire Chief Darin Sabine, from colon cancer “was extremely difficult for me personally.” Just 35 when he died, Sabine was married and had two young daughters.

“He and I went to fire school together,” Ryll said. “We were the same age and had the same background.”

His friend’s death inspired him to demand screening for cancer for himself. “I’m in a high-risk profession and I have firefighters my age that are dying from this,” he told his doctor.

‘This stuff could kill me’

David McElroy of Concord is battling cancer for the fourth time. He’s currently on medical leave from the Northwood Fire Department.

McElroy was the kind of kid who used to hang around the fire station in his hometown of York, Maine. He joined the volunteer ambulance squad there when he was 15 and the fire department when he turned 18, his senior year of high school.

McElroy was first diagnosed with colon cancer in 2017 after a colonoscopy found polyps. After surgery to re-section part of his colon, doctors declared him cancer-free.

Three years later — “April Fool’s night,” he recalled — he had bloody diarrhea. He drove himself to Concord Hospital, where doctors found a 6-centimeter tumor in his colon.

It was adenocarcinoma, the same cancer he had had before.

Surgeons removed a large section of his colon, and sewed it back together. “The surgeon looked at me and said, ‘You’re running out of colon,’” he said.

McElroy went through 12 rounds of chemo during the pandemic and 28 rounds of radiation. By January of 2021, doctors pronounced him in remission. But in 2022, a CT scan turned up a tumor on his liver.

More surgery

A year ago, he was diagnosed with the same cancer. “It’s metastasized into my lungs,” he said.

He’s going through chemo again, but somehow, McElroy keeps an upbeat attitude — most days, at least.

“It’s my nature,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you: I have bad days, and what you do is you just embrace the suck, and you win each day and you move forward. You surround yourself with good people.”

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After his diagnosis, McElroy got involved with the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN), which matches a firefighter diagnosed with cancer with a mentor who’s been through the same illness. The nonprofit also promotes awareness of the risks through its Take Action Against Cancer program.

McElroy is now the state director for FCSN and a mentor, helping others even as he battles cancer himself. He believes that education about the risks can make a big difference.

“It gets people thinking and understanding this stuff could kill me,” he said.

‘A public health problem’

Research into line-of-duty deaths for firefighters has shown that 18% result from cardiac arrest — and 67% from cancer, according to Dr. Christine Kannler, a Manchester dermatologist who has worked with fire service organizations in Massachusetts to promote skin cancer screenings.

Kannler got involved in the issue after her brother, Peter Kannler, a firefighter in Chelsea, Mass., was diagnosed in 2015 with Stage 4 esophageal cancer. He died a year later at age 37, leaving a wife and two little girls.

She said she was “ecstatic” to hear about New Hampshire’s proposed screening program. “This is a public health problem,” she said. “The majority of that pie chart is stuff that we can do something about.”

Ryll from PFFNH said the International Association of Fire Fighters sponsors research into cancer in firefighters. The more they look, the more risks they uncover.

“In today’s world, everything is coated with something chemical — furniture, textiles,” Ryll said. “So every time something burns, we’re now exposed to more chemicals than we used to be.”

Even their firefighter turnout gear is coated with PFAS chemicals, which have been linked to cancer risk and other health problems.

Concord’s City Council last week voted to spend $305,000 to purchase new, PFAS-free firefighting gear for all fire department members.

For now, Ryll said, the screening proposed in Senate Bill 352 would apply only to professional firefighters. But he expects that data collected during the two-year pilot program will prove that early detection saves lives. If the program is successful, he hopes that call and volunteer firefighters will be offered such screenings in the future.

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In 2018, Sununu signed a law for New Hampshire to join other states that recognize a “presumption” that any cancer diagnosis for an active-duty firefighter is job-related. He admitted he expected some “pushback” when he endorsed the measure because it made firefighters potentially eligible for government-paid worker’s compensation and disability retirement benefits.

Instead, he said, it was universally embraced at the state and local levels.

Northwood firefighter McElroy said he’s “100 percent” certain that his cancer is related to his occupation.

McElroy plans to testify when Senate Bill 352 comes before the House.

“I’m a four-time cancer warrior,” he said. “This is really important, and this needs to be done.”

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