Two years ago, Maine firefighter Mike Nixon was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer.
“I had a spot develop in a weird place on my ear,” he says. “It wasn’t on top where you’d think people would get skin cancer, where there is sun exposure. It was up near the top part of my left ear, but underneath the fold in the shaded part – the one and only part that is shaded except the ear canal. My wife spotted it. I went to the doctor and then I had a biopsy done and they told me I had Stage III melanoma.”
Cancer cells had spread to nearby lymph nodes. Not only did Mike have part of his ear removed, he also had to have a section of his parotid gland and all of the lymph nodes on the left side of his neck removed. After he had healed from the surgery, he went through a year of chemotherapy.
“It was a long road,” he says.
What Mike didn’t know at the time of his diagnosis was that his melanoma may have been caused by toxic chemicals he was exposed to in the line of duty.
“There’s a lot of research going on now,” he says, “that shows the chemicals being released in a fire are not just something we get through breathing them in, we get also get them through skin absorption. We don’t have chemical protective clothing when we go into fight a fire, we have turnout gear – that’s a structural firefighting ensemble, which gives you very limited protection against vapor-released gases.”
As a group, firefighters have rates of cancer that are twice as high as most people in the United States. In a white paper issued last year, the Firefighter Cancer Support Network listed several cancers with higher rates among firefighters:
Testicular cancer (2.02 times greater risk)
Multiple myeloma (1.53 times greater risk)
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (1.51 times greater risk)
Skin cancer (1.39 times greater risk)
Prostate cancer (1.28 times greater risk)
Malignant melanoma (1.31 times greater risk)
Brain cancer (1.31 times greater risk)
Colon cancer (1.21 times greater risk)
Leukemia (1.14 times greater risk)
A 2013 study conducted by the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Blue Hill points the finger at certain flame retardants in burning household materials. According to lead scientist Dr. Susan Shaw, “Our study provides clear evidence that firefighters are exposed to high levels of cancer-causing chemicals that are formed during fires by the burning of flame-retarded foam furniture, televisions, computers and building materials. Firefighters have much higher levels and different patterns of these chemicals in their blood than the general population. There is no doubt that firefighting is a dangerous occupation. What we have shown here points to the possible link between firefighting and cancer.”
Last October, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health released its findings from a three-year study that also showed increased rates of cancer among firefighters.
“The real sad thing to me,” says Mike, “is there are so many firefighters who work hard during their careers and they’re very dedicated individuals. They put themselves in harm’s way at work and get exposed to numerous kinds of hazards – physical hazards, chemical hazards – then they retire and within one to two years they develop some form of cancer.”
When he was going through his treatments, Mike, 43, connected with a mentor through the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, which he says was a huge help.
“Firefighters can reach out through a 1-800 number or the Internet and get hooked up to a mentor who has the same form of cancer,” he says. “I’m currently mentoring a firefighter from Ohio and another from Texas. They both have melanoma like I have. I’m not there to give them medical advice per se, I’m there to give them support.”
The network also tries to make firefighters more aware of chemical dangers and how to better protect their skin, such as by wearing all of their gear, including their hood, and to also wash the hood as well as themselves after a fire.
“It doesn’t take a full-fledged working fire to cause chemical exposures,” he says. “Even if it’s a routine fire, like food on the stove, if the apartment or house is full of smoke caused by a pot or a pan on the stove that is partially melted, the stuff that is coming out is amazing for toxins. It’s like going into a toxic soup of chemicals.”
“Before I had cancer, my biggest thing was to make sure I protected my airway and wore my airpack,” says Mike. “Now I’m totally thinking about how I need to encapsulate myself as much as I can. I make sure my gear gets laundered, not just after any exposure from a structure fire, but also smaller fires. We’re leaving these pathogens everywhere. Cancer-causing pathogens are in soot, in everything that got exposed in the fire. We’re even teaching firefighters to wash their hands before using the bathroom to prevent skin exposure.”
Mike recently helped kick off a national campaign called “Give Toxics The Boot,” which urges Congress to tighten restrictions on the chemicals that go into household products. The website (givetoxicstheboot.org) includes information about “Toxic Hot Seat,” a film that follows firefighters, scientists and activists, including former Maine legislator Hannah Pingree, in their campaign against toxic chemicals in household products.
At the end of this year, Shaw plans to launch a 15-year-long study with 100 Portland firefighters, including Mike. The study will analyze blood and urine samples after fires and will try to figure out exactly which chemicals are triggering cancer and get them out of the home.
Two years ago, Mike Nixon didn’t know if he’d live to fight another fire. With the support of his family, his mentor and his “brothers and sisters at the firehouse,” he was even able to work during the last six months of his chemotherapy treatments, which ended in October 2013. He says he feels healthy and he feels grateful. He is also highly motivated to raise awareness about the risk of cancer among his fellow firefighters and what can be done to reduce that risk.
Diane Atwood writes the blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood, which received a Gold Lamplighter Award from the New England Society for Healthcare Communications and a Golden Arrow Award from the Maine Public Relations Council. Find it at catchinghealth.com.