3 firefighter deaths in one year lead to new screening program to detect cancer early

Local News

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — Firefighters run into burning buildings to save others, selflessly putting their lives at risk, many times without giving it a thought.

On Saturday, May 1 a community partnership will be looking out for them.

Cancer is the leading cause of line of duty deaths for firefighters. It’s a painful reality the Syracuse Fire Department knows well.

The same year the Fire Fighter Cancer Foundation of New York (FFCF) was founded, they lost three of their own: Garry Grethel, Thomas Erwin, and Alex Cimino. All of them were in their early 50s.

“Seven kids were left behind and they were all diagnosed late,” said the President of the FFCF, Mike Valenti.

“One girl, she actually graduated high school in her father’s hospital bed.”

Mike Valenti

Since then, Valenti has been working to get his fellow firefighters screened earlier and easier. It can be challenging when they work 24-hour shifts, second jobs, and have a family at home.

For the first time, the City’s Personnel Department teamed up with Hematology-Oncology Associates of CNY (HOA), Crouse Health, and CRA Medical Imaging (CRA) to develop a program called “9-1-1: Get Screened Like Your Life Depends on It”.

The program offers nine medical screenings in one day at one location: 5008 Brittonfield Parkway in East Syracuse.

“To set some time aside to go get these screenings done is really hard. So, to be able to go and do this in one day is fantastic,” said Valenti.

Oncologist Steven Duffy with HOA says 61 percent of firefighter deaths tend to be cancer-related.

“The vast majority of these diseases that we’re looking for are very treatable and there’s a much higher chance of a cure if you find these diseases early,” he said.

To make it even more helpful, the City of Syracuse lowered the age limits for routine screenings between 10-15 years to provide testing for Syracuse firefighters.

On May 1, Syracuse firefighters will have the opportunity to get the following health screenings for free:

Beginning at age 40:

  • Colorectal cancer fecal occult blood test
  • Prostate cancer blood test
  • Kidney cancer blood test
  • Bladder cancer blood test
  • Electrocardiogram
  • Cardiac stress test

Beginning at age 50:

  • Thyroid cancer blood test
  • Lung cancer low-dose CT scan

Available at any age:

  • Cancer genetics survey

64 percent of us will be diagnosed with some sort of cancer. Our cancer rates are 100 percent higher for testicular cancer, 50 percent higher for multiple myeloma. Every cancer that we can be involved with are, you know, the risk of it is at least 50 percent higher than the rest of the population.

Mike Valenti

Even with the risk, Valenti says firefighters love their job. It’s in their blood to help others.

“It takes special people to do this job and we’re gonna do it no matter what,” he said.

This program now gives them a chance at early detection, which for some firefighters, came too late.

“If we could have saved even one of them there’d be a whole different world for their families.”

mike valenti

To register, Syracuse firefighters can call 315-472-7504 Ext. 1133.

If you can’t make it to Saturday’s event, you can still call and HOA will work with you to set up an appointment on another day.

Eventually, Valenti is hoping they’ll be able to expand this program to the rest of the county so every firefighter has this opportunity.

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