ORANGE COUNTY, FL Firefighter Stephen “Shakey” Vanravenswaay was officially diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer Feb. 25, his wife’s birthday.
Vanravenswaay, 42, did not see it coming. He has no family history of cancer. He thought the pain in his stomach was nothing severe.
“That’s when they came out and said, ‘Nope, you have pancreatic cancer that’s spread to your liver,'” said Vanravenswaay, who’s been with Orange County Fire Rescue for 19 years. “So here I am trying to fight it, hoping that I’ll be able to fight it.”
A 2013 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of 30,000 firefighters showed they are diagnosed with cancer at a rate 9 percent higher than the general population and are 14 percent more likely to die of cancer.
Researchers do not know why firefighters have higher cancer rates. But they have found that the more time they spend responding to fires, the more likely they are to be diagnosed.
With help from Orange County Fire Rescue members, Vanravenswaay’s family has raised $20,000 through the website GoFundMe, which the family has not touched yet.
“The camaraderie, there’s nothing like it,” Vanravenswaay said. “I’ve seen it from the outside, but I’ve never had the opportunity to receive it. And receiving it, I can’t say enough about these people. They are a family.”
The diagnosis has been difficult for Vanravenswaay; his wife, Lisa; and their two daughters, who are 14 and 17. But Vanravenswaay’s fellow firefighters have been a constant help, mowing his lawn, picking up his shifts and cooking the occasional dinner.
“I know not everybody gets this kind of support,” Vanravenswaay said. “Because, let’s face it, people have their own lives, and they have their own families. And there’s only so much they can do. And if the state was willing to step up, I think it would take a lot of burden off the families, as well as the Fire Department families.”
More than 30 states have a cancer presumption for firefighters, which allows them to file workers’-compensation claims for cancer, former state Rep. Mike Clelland said.
Florida is not among them, said Clelland, who spent 26 years as a firefighter and is now a lawyer with Morgan & Morgan. Workers’ compensation could help firefighters get lost wages and help with medical costs, Clelland said. But passing such a bill through the Legislature could be difficult.
“Someone’s going to have to pay for it — ultimately, taxpayers,” Clelland said.
The money could come from a state trust fund or from workers’-compensation insurance.
“It ultimately boils down to taxpayer money,” he said. “But I am telling you that this data … is so compelling that I think anyone who’s a taxpayer will be willing to listen.”
Firefighters are twice as likely as the general population to die of mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lung lining associated with asbestos exposure, said Thomas Hales, a senior medical epidemiologist with the CDC.
The numbers in the study were adjusted for age, race and gender, as firefighters studied were mostly white males.
Their rates of esophageal cancer are 62 percent higher than average, and they are 39 percent more likely to die of it, Hales said. They also have higher instances of cancers in the oral cavities, intestines, kidneys and lungs.
“I think the most terrifying thing is you look at men and women in the fire service that are getting cancer, and it’s people who are healthy, they’re young, they don’t have the family history of it,” said Jason Schneider, Winter Garden Professional Firefighters union president. “And all of a sudden, it’s aggressive forms of cancer that are attacking us. It kind of comes out of nowhere.”
Departments are also being more proactive by promoting prevention and early detection with ultrasound scans, said Katherine Argabright, president of the Orange County Professional Fire Fighters union.
Firefighters are mindful of washing their smoky gear, worried that burning plastic and other substances could saturate their clothing, Argabright said.
‘I love the job’
Vanravenswaay decided to become a firefighter after a stint with the Air Force in California. He spent two years with Volusia County Fire Rescue, then decided to move to a larger department. Orange County Fire Rescue was his first choice.
Early on in his career, he got the nickname “Shakey” on a medical call, when his knee started shaking as he struggled to keep a restaurant cook who accidentally cut herself and fainted off the floor. Nobody in the Fire Department calls him anything else.
“I love the job, I love the people,” Vanravenswaay said. “If somebody asked me, would you [with] what I know now, would I join the Fire Department again? Absolutely.”
Since he stopped working in February, Vanravenswaay has been using up his paid time off. Other firefighters have been working his shifts, swapping their vacation days so that he could have more.
Lisa Vanravenswaay has taken a leave from her job with the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office to take care of him.
To qualify for short-term disability, Vanravenswaay will have to stop swapping shifts and spend 90 days getting 13 percent of his regular salary. On short-term disability, he’ll get 40 percent to 60 percent of his regular pay. If it comes to that, the family will dip into the$20,000 GoFundMe account.
Vanravenswaay still hopes to go into remission, get back to work and give the money raised for him to the next firefighter diagnosed with cancer.
“I have a chance,” he said. “That’s what they told me. I have a chance. Not a great chance, but I have a chance.”
From The Orlando Sentinel