For Bob Walker, it started as a scratchy, red blotch that he thought was a rash from battling fires in full gear in the unforgiving heat of South Florida.
“But it didn’t go away,” he said. By the time he saw a doctor months later, the cancer on his leg had spread to his lymph nodes and eventually to his liver, lungs, intestines and brain.
Twelve years after his battle began, the 57-year-old firefighter from Palm Beach County stood next to a team of researchers from the University of Miami on Thursday to announce a rare study to find out why Walker and so many of his colleagues are prone to contracting certain cancers.
“It’s long overdue,” said Walker, who has had 18 surgeries.
The Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at UM’s Miller School of Medicine will oversee the study of the Miami-Dade and Palm Beach County fire rescue departments, partly to identify the hazards that drive the disease, and also to search for ways to make the job safer for the next generation.
Funded by $1 million from the state of Florida, the project is to begin this fall, nearly two years after a major national study showed that firefighters suffered a higher rate of the disease compared to the greater population, especially in respiratory and digestive cancers.
Some of the likely reasons: the toxins and carcinogens from the job — including benzene and formaldehyde from the fumes of fire engines and even burning buildings. “You’re sucking smoke,” said Walker, who has lost portions of his lung, liver and other organs in surgeries.
Standing alongside a green, 34-foot fire engine at the Miami-Dade fire station on Northwest 27th Avenue, Palm Beach fire administrator Jeff Collins asked for a show of hands among the rank and file to see who had the disease. Four immediately raised their hands.
“We’ve got to fix this problem,” he said. “They are getting cancer and they are getting it at a higher rate.”
Even with the anecdotal evidence and the larger study from 2013, the South Florida project may go a long way toward establishing critical scientific markers that have been lacking over the decades, said researchers from the Sylvester Center.
For all the years that firefighters say they have been watching their colleagues be taken by the disease, the evidence is far from complete. “There is so little we really know right now,” said Dr. Stephen Nimer, center director. “We need to uncover the risk factors.”
The project will include several innovations: rescue workers bagging their gear after fires and turning it over to the research teams to analyze the chemicals clinging to the masks and jackets.
Surveys will attempt to track the hours that firefighters actually spend exposed to burning materials and to compare rates of the disease between drivers and those who are the first to jump into burning structures.
“We will attempt to track exposure,” said Erin Kobetz, associate director of the center, who will supervise much of the project. “What carcinogens stay on the gear? This is a very, very unique study.”
Not only do researchers want to gauge the risks, they also want to find ways to better shield firefighters from absorbing the dangerous chemicals.
The project aims to enroll 90 percent of firefighters in the two counties — more than 1,000 men and women who will submit to annual physicals for early detection.
Miami-Dade Chief Dave Downey said he and his colleagues have talked for years about the hazards of their jobs, but he was only aware of research into exposure and rates of the disease in the past five years.
“It’s the silent killer for all firefighters,” said Downey, who joined the department in 1988. “We’re seeing guys in their 30s developing cancers that you don’t normally see in people until they are much older. We lost six people to brain cancer in 18 months. All of them were under 55.”
Miami-Dade firefighter Luis Suarez said he felt tired for weeks and was experiencing digestive problems until he finally agreed to undergo tests last year. The result: colon cancer.
“They found two polyps that were malignant,” said the 36-year-old rescue worker who is married with a young daughter. “After trying to always help everyone else out, I finally had to take care of myself.”
In the ensuing year, he had two surgeries and a regimen of chemotherapy while he discovered an entire network of firefighter survivors.
He told reporters during the news conference that he will encourage all his colleagues to take part in the study “so they don’t have to go through what I went through.”
The state money is expected to pay for the project’s first year, but the study will last many more years, said researchers, who will be looking for additional funding in the next year.
State Rep. Jeanette Nunez, who joined the firefighters at the news conference, said she was personally moved by the requests to deliver the funding. “They don’t think twice before running into a burning building,” she said. “By the time a firefighter turns 60, you’re more than twice as likely to die of cancer than cardiac arrest. That is unacceptable.”