South Walton firefighter survived cancer diagnosis. Now he's stressing importance of prevention.
It took awhile for Steve Newsom to process the news when his doctor told him the shoulder problems he had been experiencing were because of cancerous plasma cells weakening his bones.
Newsom was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in April 2020 after spending several years in the fire service.
After months of treatment, his cancer went into remission and he returned to his position as a lieutenant with the South Walton Fire District. But not every firefighter will have the same outcome.
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Firefighter occupational cancer is the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths in the fire service, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). From 2015 to 2020, 75% of firefighters added to the IAFF Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial died from occupational cancer.
“It’s within the last decade that we’re starting to take it more serious,” Newsom said. “They’re starting to track these numbers and find out that people who have been in the fire service for some time now are turning up with cancer later in their life and in their career.”
January is Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month
The IAFF, in partnership with the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, has designated January as Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month to encourage fire departments to develop protocols for cancer prevention and support those with a cancer diagnosis.
The link between firefighting and cancer has received growing attention over the past few years. In 2019, the Florida Legislature passed Senate Bill 426, which mandates employer-funded benefits for firefighters diagnosed with occupational cancer.
Chronic exposure to heat, smoke and toxicants, whether visible or not, can put firefighters at a higher risk for developing cancer, according to the IAFF.
Fires release many hazardous substances that can lead to exposures through the lungs, nose, mouth, throat and even contact with the skin. Some of the chemicals are proven cancer causing, or carcinogenic, agents, according to the IAFF.
“Back in the day we just didn’t think a lot about it. You didn’t think a lot about cancer. Dirty, stinky, smelly gear was a badge of honor,” Newsom said. “You never think it was going to be you, and then you find out it’s you, and now you’re a statistic and you’re a part of that group.”
Newsom was experiencing a lingering shoulder issue when he decided to visit a doctor. He thought maybe he had injured his rotator cuff during exercise. But an MRI showed something much more malignant, a 3-inch tumor on the interior side of his shoulder blade.
Another MRI revealed a lesion about the size of a pinky fingernail on a vertebra in his lower back, and a bone biopsy led doctors to the ultimate conclusion that it was multiple myeloma.
Firefighters are at a greater risk for numerous types of cancer, including multiple myeloma, mesothelioma, non-hodgkin’s lymphoma, malignant melanoma, brain cancer, colon cancer and leukemia.
“It’s strange because you really are not sure what to do with that. You’re kind of stunned, in shock,” Newsom said of his diagnosis. “You don’t feel anything. It took awhile for me to process, for it to sink in and for me to swallow that pill.”
Before he knew it, Newsom was undergoing 10 rounds of target radiation on his shoulder blade followed by a chemotherapy regimen called RVD, which is designed to kill or slow the growth of myeloma cells.
He spent about a month in Alabama undergoing further testing and treatments at UAB Hospital before he finally rang the bell signaling that his cancer was in remission in October, about seven months from his diagnosis.
By then, he was itching to get back to work, but he was unsure of how his body would respond. It required conditioning and a bit of hard work, but Newsom returned to the South Walton Fire District about two months later on Dec. 17.
“I’d been gone for a while and I had to test myself. You’re unsure. Going under chemotherapy and stem cell transplants, it changes you,” Newsom said. “It wears you down in a way where you feel thin or hollow. It’s more than just being tired. So it took my body a while to recover.”
Encouraging others to take cancer prevention more seriously
Newsom said he’s known several other firefighters in the Florida Panhandle and in South Florida who have fought the same battle with cancer, but not all of them have won. He hopes his story can continue to encourage others to take cancer prevention more seriously.
The South Walton Fire District has put many measures and precautions in place to help reduce the threat. Firefighters empty all pockets and wash their gear immediately after each fire.
Anything that comes into contact with contaminants is kept out of the station and living quarters. The Fire District also purchased extra sets of gear for each firefighter to use while everything is being washed.
“The more the information gets out, that it is a real thing, and there are things we can do to help prevent this is a good thing,” Newsom said. “It’s still new and some don’t really take it seriously. We’ve never really thought about it and it needs to be exposed and talked about. Because we don’t think it could happen to us, but it does.”
More information and resources can be found online at https://www.iaff.org/cancer-awareness-month/.