It’s been just over five years now that my good friend Captain Andy Troncale of the Arcadia (Calif.) Fire Department passed away. Andy and I grew up together and played Little League in West Covina, Calif. We joined the Los Angeles County Fire Department as Explorers at age 15. We would ditch school and ride along at every fire station we could. We fell in love with the fire service immediately. We never looked back and started our careers right out of high school.
I always liked to say I was Andy’s training captain because as young boys, we would set fires in my parents’ backyard and play “firefighter.” Andy was the smart one: I provided the training center (my parents’ backyard), which meant I was stuck with the evidence while Andy rode his bike home, another successful “training” session complete.
Though my dad was in the refrigeration business, I swear he was a fire investigator in a past life. Andy and I always took pains to cover our tracks from the fires we set, but my dad managed to find the burn patterns, the point of origin and the Ohio blue tips used for ignition along with burned wood, debris and weeds. I’d get the belt, and Andy—well, he was always “such a good boy.”
Andy succumbed to colorectal cancer on Jan. 23, 2012, at just 52 years old. It was a tough battle; anyone who knew Andy knew he was tough. But not tough enough to win this time.
In 2013 the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) published the results of study of firefighters and cancer rates. The study showed a combined population of 30,000 firefighters from three large cities had higher rates of several types of cancers, and of all cancers combined, than the U.S. population as a whole.
The cancers with the highest rates in the study were cancers of the respiratory, digestive and urinary systems, indicating that firefighters are more likely to develop those cancers. Although understanding of the link between firefighting and cancer is now widespread, this study was a landmark in raising awareness. Similar results had been seen in previous smaller studies, but the NIOSH study measured a much larger population over a longer period. There is still much we do not know about the cancer risks firefighters face, but the fact that we do face increased risks of certain cancers is beyond doubt.
And that brings me back to Andy. His death was ruled a line-of-duty death, caused by job-related colorectal cancer. Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in men and women in the United States. Of cancers that kill both men and women, colorectal cancer is the second-leading cancer killed.
Colorectal cancer affects people in all racial and ethnic groups. It’s most often found in people age 50 and older, but recent research suggests that risk may be shifting. A report published Feb. 28, 2017, found that someone born in 1990 would have twice the risk of colon cancer and four times the risk of rectal cancer at the same age had they been born in 1950.
So, the risk appears to be increasing, firefighters are at higher risk for cancer in general, and if not detected early, colorectal cancer survival rates are low. I don’t know about you, but to me, that’s a clarion call to take action:
• If you’re over 50, get a regular colonoscopy or other screening test your doctor recommends.
• No matter your age, watch for symptoms: blood in or on your stool, stomach pain or cramps that don’t go away, and/or unexplained weight loss.
• Maintain a healthy weight, or try to lose weight if you’re obese or overweight.
• Eat a diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and low in animal fat.
March is the month dedicated to raise awareness about colorectal cancer. Perhaps you can share this with members in your organization to spread the word—and maybe save the life of someone a lot like Andy Troncale.
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SAM DIGIOVANNA is a 33-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as Fire Chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, Calif. He also is a consultant for Lexipol Fire Services.