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'Fire can kill us long after it's been put out': Recognizing inaugural Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month

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Firefighters obviously have dangerous jobs but the immediate risk of running into burning buildings isn't the biggest threat.

For the first time, there is a month dedicated to highlighting what is: cancer.

The International Association of Fire Fighters has declared January the inaugural Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month in Canada.

"The fire can kill us long after it's been put out and to get that acknowledgment and that recognition for that is really important for our industry," said Calgary firefighter Lorne Miller.

"It's a very real risk that many of us in the department are facing."

Calgary firefighter Lorne Miller

Miller, a Calgary firefighter for 16 years, has beaten cancer twice and is now facing it a third time.

In May of 2021, he was diagnosed with soft-tissue sarcoma -- a cancer that Alberta's Workers' Compensation Board (WCB) only began to cover last year.

"I'm thrilled to have more and more cancers recognized on that list. It's critically important that our members get the coverage and benefits that they need while going through treatment to help protect themselves and their family."

Each province is different -- Alberta's WCB currently recognizes 20 occupational cancers.

"To me, every cancer should be covered," said Calgary firefighter Jennette Allum.

"I don't think any firefighter, when they've been doing this job, or they do this job for 30-plus years, should ever have to question if they'll be cared for if they get a type of cancer."

Allum, a Calgary firefighter for 17 years, was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2022 but is now cancer-free.

Breast cancer was added to the Alberta WCB's list in 2013.

Both firefighters advocate the importance of early detection.

Calgary firefighter Jennette Allum

"If it would have been another six months, I could have been looking at a different scenario. So with the early detection, you have a better chance of survival down the road," Allum said.

Prevention is their other key message.

Protocols have shifted to a more aggressive decontamination before firefighters take off their breathing apparatus.

"It's just how everything is made inside a home, nowadays. It's all plastic. So when you think about that burning up and all the carcinogenic effects," Allum said.

"We do our best to decontaminate after but it's still soaking into your skin and your pores."

It's not just toxins from fires, it's also diesel firetrucks, the foam sprayed and recently, even their protective gear has been found to have carcinogens.

"It's something we accept and acknowledge when we put our boots by the truck to serve our community," Miller said.

They also hope to serve the community by spreading awareness and offering support to others facing a diagnosis.

"My phone rings a lot more than it used to with people reaching out with fresh diagnoses," Miller said.

He has been through two major surgeries and is undergoing chemotherapy right now, chronicling his cancer journey through his Instagram account, @thelornemiller.

He encourages anyone facing a cancer diagnosis to reach out to him for support.

"We can also take comfort knowing that some of the brightest minds in the oncology world live and work right here in Calgary, in Alberta," Miller said.

Health Canada says firefighters have a nine per cent higher risk of cancer diagnosis and a 14 per cent higher risk of dying from cancer than the general public but some studies show the risk might be even higher than that.

The Calgary Fire Department added the highest number of names to its list of fallen firefighters in 2023.

All 12 of them died due to occupational illnesses.

The International Association of Fire Fighters estimates 93 per cent of in-the-line-of-duty deaths are due to cancer.

Health Canada says firefighters have a nine per cent higher risk of cancer diagnosis and a 14 per cent higher risk of dying from cancer than the general public but some studies show the risk might be even higher than that.

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