INTRODUCTION - By: Lennard Gettz, Cheri Ambrose & the F.A.C.E.S. writing team
Finding leadership, compassion and a deep level of commitment are just a few models of character to be found in the society of Cancer Foundations-- and even more in Firefighters Cancer Support organizations. Lt. Chris Conner of F.A.C.E.S. (Firefighters Against Cancer and Exposures) felt the calling to do more for his brethren as an active first responder when he witnessed a rising number of firefighters passing away from cancer. "Cousin" Sal Banchitta retired shortly after 9/11 and counted a collection of prayer cards from every cancer-related funeral that shaped his personal mission with the NY Cancer Resource Alliance to form the 9/11 CancerScan.
Dr. Bard endorsed this story as part of a national review of departmental initiatives supporting first responders exposure to cancer. This feature interview with Ms. Mazurkiewicz details her dedicated initiative to bring an elevated level of support to Florida firefighters, and shall stand as a legislative model for fire departments nationwide.
" THE ULTIMATE CALLING"- by Heather MazurkiewiczIn 2013, I won a ride-along with my local fire department and it was that day that changed my life. I ended up quitting my CEO job and going through the fire Academy at 45 years old. I just fell in love with the fire department.
I have a pretty extensive background with regard to legislative activities, and when I did my ride along, I learned from the crew that the state of Florida was one of the few States that did not cover cancer for firefighters. I realized that I probably wouldn't end up on a fire truck at 45 years old, so I thought the best thing that I could do was to fight for legislation to have cancer covered.
Roughly two years ago, Florida's Governor Ron DeSantis actually signed the bill that allows for cancer coverage for Florida's firefighter. We worked for several years to get that coverage. If certain criteria is met, it can help firefighters that are already on the job, but will also help firefighters from the day that it was signed on July, 2019.
We needed a holistic way to look at the issue; it wasn't just that we needed the legislature to recognize the fact that cancer is the number one killer of firefighters, and that we needed them to be able to provide the coverage for the occupational disease of cancer for these firefighters. But it was critical that the coverage also had to be there as line of duty deaths- so that if the firefighter did pass away, the benefits extended to the family left behind. Part of my work was also to educate firefighters about what they need to be doing in this type of crisis.A common finding is that when a firefighter is diagnosed, it's often an extremely aggressive form of that cancer. Because of this, my new goal is to work with doctors to advance testing capacity and faster response time- where a couple of weeks wait is just not acceptable. I just have way too many stories about firefighters diagnosed and had passed away within 10 days or two weeks with no previous symptoms.
FULL SPEED AHEAD
The cancer legislation that was passed was for 21 cancers. But I've had two or three that I know of personally who have passed away from pancreatic cancer, which is not one of the cancers that's covered. So we want to be able to ADD more cancers to the list. Obviously, preventive education must continue within the fire service- from the Academy level, all the way up to retirees. We believe the retirement generation deserves a life expectancy to be the same as everyone else. They worked hard for that pension... let's make sure they enjoy it.
Maintaining and expanding the coverage is the priority. Within the legislation every year, we need to continue programs like the University of Miami's Firefighter Cancer Initiative.  Visit: https://umiamihealth.org
This funding is crucial for all kinds of studies that specific to firefighters exposures. Also, there are many smaller departments that might not have the revenue or the finances to be able to purchase (say) an extractor or a second sets of gear. We started a program around 2018 through other organizations like the Florida State Fire Marshal's office, the Chief Financial Officer's office, the FCSN and The Firefighter's Health and Safety Collaborative. We all came together and we developed these buckets, and they are five gallon buckets that you have, but within that bucket are things that a firefighter will need to be able to perform gross decon. There's a hose, adapters, everything that you would need to perform gross econ and we put together over 4,000 of those buckets and distributed them to departments. They had to apply for the grant with the goal of wanting to get one of those buckets on every piece of apparatus within the state of Florida- so that everybody could (at a bare minimum) be able to perform gross deacon after any kind of fire. This includes a dumpster fire, car fire structure fire etc. They would have the capability to perform that gross decon.
Unending Battle in Multiple Fronts to Help ALL Responders
Just this week, I had three firefighters in my office scanned for unique cancers. They usually come to me for a second opinion and they hear about technologies that I employ that are not the typical template diagnostic solutions. As with all my patients, my medical care and support comes in the form of a deeper analysis through an INTEGRATIVE paradigm. This means I use a wider set of resources and collaborators than most cancer teams (both foreign and domestic) to identify and validate cancers. I also spend time with each patient by educating them on their exact situation, sharing technical information about the latest solutions/technologies - and exploring the 'many answers to cancer' -- and there are truly MANY (more).
As for my recent firefighters, we learned from 9/11 about the "dormant" cancers that seem to trend in appearance and recurrence. Toxicologists also found newly formed compounds from big fires that are (now) to blame for activating physiological reactions and illnesses- often found in retired rescue workers. I am grateful for the WTC health program, the Victims Compensation Fund and other government backed initiatives to support these victims- but what about the rest of the fire service?
Having learned about Ms. Mazurkiewicz and her journey, I applaud her and all those out there that are driven by this calling. I can relate to her attraction to the fire service, then advocating cancer coverage on a statewide level. My inspiration to this similar mission was rooted as far back as my days in the military (1971) where Agent Orange sparked my work as a "cancer detective". Geographically, my radiology office is centralized in midtown Manhattan where my door became well recognized by my friends at the FD since the days of the big disaster 1975 NY Tel Exchange Fire. But the work, as I see it today is a much bigger arena. It is not only about NY anymore - it is for and about ALL firefighters.
In the words of "Dapper" Dan Noonan - ret. FDNY, "there are many fires... it's OUR duty to stay on top of them all!"
CONGRATULATIONS TO THE NEW CREW OF F.A.C.E.S. 2.0 - Firefighters Against Cancer & Exposures( F.A.C.E.S. ) is founded by Christopher Conner of Bedford, TX. As a first responder, Chris established a community of resources dedicated to helping firefighters who have been diagnosed with cancer. Originally established as a charitable foundation, the 2021 version of FACES aligns with the strength of all cancer orgs, cancer resources and first responder groups to collectively bring public support and aid to our heroes in all ways possible. New supporters include: Integrative Cancer Resource Alliance, Cheri Ambrose, President of the Male Breast Cancer Coalition, Mindy Conklin, President of Hitting Cancer Below the Belt (Colorectal Cancer), and a growing list of allies in the firefighter support community and the national society of cancer foundations. Firefighters and their families dedicate their lives and lifestyles to save others; it is our turn to help them. Heroum Animas Salvas. Save the Lives of Heroes.