WORCESTER, MA — When he joined the Worcester Fire Department 2½ years ago, Heath Tisdale knew that he'd be at higher risk than the general public of getting cancer.
His chances of dying from the disease would also be greater.
Did it give him pause about his career?
"Not one bit," he said. "Not at all."
Tisdale, Firefighter Casey Gates and Capt. Paul McCaffrey all came from the McKeon Road fire station to Polar Park Tuesday for a free skin cancer screening offered by DetecTogether and UMass Memorial Medical Center.
All three left with no need for further screening, but about 20% of the firefighters who were screened were going to need a second look at suspect skin spots. Some will undergo biopsies in the next week, a minor procedure for additional testing.
Firefighters from across the state were invited to the event. And while the general public thinks of them as heroes, fit as a fiddle and healthy specimens, many aspects of their jobs put them at higher risk.
From the gear they wear, to the foam they once used to fight fires, to the toxic smoke produced when homes and their contents burn, almost everything a firefighter encounters could cause cancer.
Those in the fire service have a cancer diagnosis rate 9% higher than the general population and their risk of dying from cancer is 14% higher.
DetecTogether staff has traveled to hundreds of fire stations to educate firefighters about the importance of undergoing cancer screenings, Heather Maykel, the First Responder Program manager for DetecTogether, said.
Mass screening program born from sessions with Worcester firefighters
It was from those sessions with Worcester firefighters that the idea for a mass screening program was born. Polar Park offered space at the DCU Club and for a time, WooSox president Charles Steinberg serenaded the firefighters on the piano as medical students screened the firefighters.
Each firefighter was given a ticket to an upcoming WooSox game and a DetecTogether shirt, as well.
The screening involved a once-over of most all of an individual's skin. Using a lighted magnifying glass, dermatologists performing the screening look for atypical moles, checking the symmetry, border, color and diameter of any anomalies. Any changes to spots on the skin can be reason for concern, as well, Dr. Jessica St. John of the Department of Dermatology at UMass Memorial Healthcare, said.
Firefighters were also offered the opportunity to schedule other screenings including colonoscopies, lung cancer screenings and follow-up visits with dermatology.
They were also offered assistance in finding a primary care physician, if they needed one, through UMass Memorial Health's CarePath program.
Experts said that firefighters sometimes focus more on helping others and sometimes let their own health care needs languish. In other cases, they're hesitant to drop their tough exterior and share with a doctor if they are having concerns.
Knowing that, DetecTogether provided a business card they can hand to their doctor detailing their elevated cancer risks and advocating for their doctor's help in remaining healthy.
"It's a team sport," Maykel said of health care. "You go to the doctor and you share information about your health."
Maykel said in the training, firefighters learn to monitor their health and to know how they feel when they're at their best. They should notice things like their energy level, sleep patterns, weight, skin and bathroom habits and if there are any changes that last more than two weeks, they should see their doctor, she explained.
Matt Ferrara, a Webster firefighter for the past two years, said he came in for the screening because in addition to the risks at his firefighting job, he spends plenty of time outside at a part-time job.
After a once-over by the dermatology team, he was happy to report nothing suspicious on his skin and said he plans to work with his doctor to be sure he stays healthy so he can continue helping people in the job he loves.