I serve as the fire chief in Dedham, MA. As those in the fire service started to understand and talk about firefighter cancer, I attended the Michael Mullane Health and Safety Symposium organized by the Boston Fire Department in May 2016. It was there where I was introduced to the “Hamrock Letter,” a letter written by Dr. Michael Hamrock, himself a former firefighter, that outlines the unique health risks that face firefighters and recommends particular physical exams and screening tests. The letter is meant for a firefighter to present to his or her primary care physician, who may not necessarily know that members of the fire service have a 9% increased risk of developing cancer and a 14% greater risk of dying from cancer than the general public.
Little did I know at the time that this letter would save my life.
I had no signs or cancer symptoms. In the fall of 2017, I had just returned to the job after hip surgery and was feeling really good. During my annual physical in June of that year, I shared the Hamrock Letter with my doctor. Routine tests showed that my PSA level was in the normal range but had spiked quite a bit from the previous visit. My doctor wanted to take a wait and see approach, but again, I referenced the letter and pushed to see an oncologist. During that visit, I used the letter when the oncologist also wanted to wait. I explained my risk as a firefighter, and because of that, the doctor decided to do a biopsy. What was ultimately discovered was very fast-growing prostate cancer. Following surgery, my doctor told me that if the cancer was left untreated, in six months, it would have spread significantly, and I would have been facing a very different prognosis.
Following that Boston health and safety symposium, I developed a new health and wellness program in my fire department in Dedham. The program was designed to get our firefighters to start paying better attention to their overall health and fitness. We partner with organizations like DetecTogether and O2X, require that the firefighters keep up with their annual physicals, and make sure that they are equipped with the Hamrock Letter when visiting their doctors. DetecTogether has compiled a variety of resources specific to members of the fire service, including a wallet-sized version of the Hamrock letter.
Early detection and screenings saved my life. I’m very open about my story and share it with the hope of connecting with fellow firefighters. I encourage those in the fire service to take the time to understand their unique cancer risk, to arm themselves with the tools to catch cancer early, and to be a strong self advocate with their doctors.
- elevated PSA
FREE Online Learning for Firefighters
The platform includes our 3 Steps Detect training along with 10 short lessons covering topics such as compiling your medical history, identifying and tracking symptoms, and how to prepare for doctor appointments. Firefighters can access the platform by clicking the link below.