AP NEWS

Early detection program helps Spring firefighters battle cancer

June 25, 2018 GMT

Matt Corso wasn’t showing symptoms of cancer when he went in for a physical assessment as required by the Spring Fire Department.

Since he was 19, Corso, now 35, said he was hesitating having to go through the mandatory health screening the department instituted in 2016 for all employees to help detect and treat medical conditions.

“I actually didn’t want to do it,” he said.

Corso said he and other firefighters reluctantly attended their screenings.

The three-part screening process consists of blood work, an ultrasound and a lifestyle consultation.

During his first screening in November 2016, he was scheduled to take an ultrasound scan, which covers the entire torso from the neck to the top of the thigh.

He was feeling fine while he was going through his checkup, but was didn’t want to hear any bad news. The technician tried to calm him by telling him the scans typically found minor, treatable conditions.

He began to worry when the ultrasound technician said his aorta wouldn’t show up on the screen. Instead, a black spot appeared where his heart was supposed to be located.

“They ended up finding a tumor that was the size of my fist and they were worried it was an abdominal aortic aneurysm,” Corso said.

The next thing he knew, he was being rushed to the emergency room to get checked out. Additional tests found that he didn’t have an aneurysm, but his diagnosis wasn’t clear.

A few weeks later, an oncologist informed Corso he had stage 2 testicular cancer that had spread to his lymph nodes.

It sounded like a death sentence to him.

“Everybody I know that has had cancer didn’t beat it. My wife didn’t know anybody that had beat it. We hear this and we don’t know what the future holds,” Corso said.

A 2013 study by the Centers of Disease Control found that firefighters had higher rates of respiratory, digestive and urinary system cancers.

To help lower the rates of cancer and other medical conditions, the Spring Fire Department instituted the program to catch and find treatment for firefighters.

One reason for the required screenings is because firefighters have a tendency to avoid getting medical checkups, said assistant fire chief Robert Logan.

“I just think it’s the profession - we deal with medicine all day long. We’re not real good at going to the doctor,” Logan said.

Among the occupational hazards that firefighters face when responding to a call are burns and falling debris.

Another major danger is smoke, which can potentially carry toxic fumes, depending on the materials that are being consumed by the fire.

“People don’t put the two together automatically that when you’re walking into a fire, you’re walking into breathing carcinogens and taking them out with you,” said spokesperson Tracee Evans.

Aside from the health screenings, the department is also utilizing other methods to help firefighters stay healthy.

One strategy is providing two sets of fire gear to all firefighters. When one set is used to respond to call, the firefighters have an extra one they can use, Logan said.

Another method is having firefighters use stationary bicycles in a medical sauna after responding to a fire.

Some of the benefits firefighters have mentioned is getting rid of the smell of smoke in their skin and hair after using the bikes, he said.

“They ride anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes. The real thing is not to do a crazy exercise. You’re just trying to induce enough sweat to kind of detoxify the smoke and contaminants,” Logan said.

The fire department is encouraging its firefighters to stay healthy by using exercise and stretching to prevent injuries and as a way to relieve stress, Logan said.

Mainly, the health screenings have helped staff members discover previously undiagnosed hypertension or diabetes.

“Whatever we can do to make is safer and make it better for them, I want them to have good, healthy lives,” Logan said.

Corso said that once he obtained his cancer diagnosis, he was taken off the rotation and immediately went began chemotherapy in December 2016.

By April 2017, he was back on duty.

If the cancer had remained undetected, his symptoms would’ve worsened and might not have been treatable by chemotherapy.

At the second screening last fall, Corso said he was nervous about going through the process again.

Although his cancer had been in remission and had been cleared by doctors, he was stressed about the technician finding anything else that might indicate a serious illness.

Corso said that despite his stress over the screening, it helped save his life and he has encouraged others in the department to get them done.

“Early detection is key to beating this. You have to be an advocate for yourself and get as much preventative care as possible and find out early,” he said.

mayra.cruz@chron.com