Firefighters, grieving families push for earlier cancer screenings

CTV Vancouver
Published Thursday, March 31, 2016 4:25PM PDT
Last Updated Thursday, March 31, 2016 6:14PM PDT

The pain of losing her husband Randy, a longtime Surrey firefighter who succumbed to lung cancer in December, is still fresh in Marilyn Piticco’s mind.

“I miss him every day. He is – was – an amazing man,” Piticco said.

Compounding her grief is the thought that his cancer might have been discovered sooner. His symptoms, including back pain and weight loss, first emerged on a cruise two years ago, but it took almost a year-and-a-half for his cancer to be diagnosed.

Marilyn Piticco’s husband Randy was a longtime Surrey firefighter before being diagnosed with lung cancer. He died in December. (CTV)

“Randy’s first words were ‘I have so much I wanted to do,’” Piticco said. “The biggest thing on cancer’s side is time and I feel like we lost time.”

Her husband started chemotherapy in October, but only survived two more months before dying at the age of 61.

Piticco is now among the firefighters and family members pushing for earlier diagnostic measures.

Studies have shown firefighters are 14 per cent more likely to be killed by cancer than the general population, a significant statistic when considering the disease is responsible for 30 per cent of deaths in Canada.

But Piticco fears there’s a lack of awareness about that heightened risk among doctors.

“Our doctor didn’t know that so many firefighters are sick. There are so many of his brothers that are sick with cancer and that surprised the doctor,” she said.

Oncologist Dr. Kenneth Kunz said based on the risks firefighters face through repeated exposure to carcinogens on the job, they should start getting cancer screening much earlier than the general population.

“Firefighters should undergo, in my opinion, routine screening and surveillance for incidental cancers beginning at age 40… about 10 years earlier than the average Canadian,” Kunz said.

Kunz also agrees there’s a need to raise awareness about the health issues firefighters face.

“The firefighting profession as well as the medical profession should be aware of this higher risk and expect higher cancer numbers and mortalities,” he said.

Rick Henderson, one of Randy Piticco’s colleagues, was also diagnosed with cancer last year. His is non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a treatable, but incurable form.

He said in a crew of six firefighters who were working in Surrey about 15 years ago, five have experienced health issues.

“Two of us have cancer, two of them have had unexplained tumours, another one had cancer involving getting his foot removed and another one is not sick,” Henderson said.

Henderson’s cancer was at Stage 4B when he was diagnosed. His disease has forced him off the job, but he intends to go back when his health allows.

“It’s the cost of doing business for us. It’s a workplace hazard – cancer, heart disease, all sorts of things,” he said.

Marilyn Piticco believes that sacrifice should be rewarded with the best care and treatment available.

“There isn’t anything that they wouldn’t do to help a family, to save people,” she said. “They’re our heroes. We thank them. And then we can’t desert them.”

With a report from CTV Vancouver’s Alex Turner 


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