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Cancer screening delivers devastating news to some SF firefighters

Firefighters with the San Francisco Fire Department battle a blaze following an explosion of a gas line in February 2019. | Santiago Mejia/Pool/Getty Images
Firefighters with the San Francisco Fire Department battle a blaze in February 2019. | Santiago Mejia/Pool/Getty Images

The results from a recent cancer screening event are in: Tests indicate that nine San Francisco firefighters may have the deadly disease. 

Representatives of the department are resigned to the results, and said that positive tests were inevitable. That’s because firefighters are constantly exposed to carcinogenic chemicals, said Tony Stefani, who leads the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation, which put on the event.

“Even though precautions are being taken, and the culture has changed to better protect the men and women on the front lines, these cancers are still popping up,” said Stefani, who is a former firefighter and cancer survivor himself. “It’s going to continue to be this way, I’m afraid.”

Over 1,400 people, including current and retired firefighters, plus their partners, were tested for signs of cancer in December using the Galleri Multi-Cancer Early Detection Test. The test can detect signs of more than 50 types of cancer, according to the manufacturer. A positive result on the Galleri test is not the same as a firm cancer diagnosis, but rather a signal that cancer indicators are present in the body and that further testing is needed.

A member of SFFD gets their blood drawn at the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation testing event on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

There’s limited information available about the nine people who received positive tests, since the results were communicated directly to the individuals and their physicians. But Stefani said that all nine cases are among people over 50 years old.

Three of the people who received positive tests reached out to the foundation, and all three are retired men who used to work in fire suppression, Stefani said. Two received signals of possible pancreatic cancer and one for multiple myeloma.

Cancer has plagued fire departments across the country, and people working in the profession have a higher risk for all cancers when compared with the general public, especially cancers impacting the respiratory, digestive and urinary systems, studies have shown. Between April 2018 and November 2022, the cancer prevention foundation documented 68 cancer cases among SF’s firefighters, including 20 cases that struck active members, according to Adam Wood, vice president of the firefighters’ union. 

Five active firefighters have died of cancer since 2014, Wood said.

San Francisco Fire Department Chief Jeanine Nicholson is a cancer survivor, one of many city firefighters who have received the diagnosis. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

The San Francisco Fire Department is in the midst of a yearslong effort to curb cancer rates among its members, said department spokesperson Capt. Jonathan Baxter. 

Firefighters used to casually wear their protective coats and jackets, known as turnout gear, around the station after a deployment. The problem is, in addition to the toxicity of the leftover soot from the fire, the turnouts themselves contain carcinogens, too, Baxter explained. So now, after returning from a fire, members are told to immediately take off their gear and put it into a special exhaust extractor to clean it. 

The department has also begun purchasing turnout gear with lower levels of cancer-causing chemicals, and is working with manufacturers in the hope of eventually developing equipment that’s completely free of carcinogens, Baxter said.

He added that the department hopes to continue screening members with the Galleri test in future years, though its high cost—more than $1 million, which the foundation footed—means it won’t likely be an annual event. But for Baxter, the value of testing firefighters for cancer is undeniable.

“If we’re able to find somebody who has cancer components early and start the process of getting them cleared and monitored, it’s going to save somebody’s life, it’s going to alleviate anxiety and it’s going to prolong the careers of firefighters who, in other cases, might not be so fortunate,” he said.

Noah Baustin can be reached at nbaustin@sfstandard.com