GOODYEAR – Thirty-five-year-old Gilbert Aguirre has been a firefighter for 16 years, so he knew the risks with his career choice.
What didn’t cross his mind was cancer.
In May of 2015, he went in for his yearly physical for Goodyear Fire Department and everything changed.
“My blood work came back that my platelet count was extremely elevated,” said Aguirre. “They immediately took me off the truck and said you need to see your primary care doctor.”
The diagnosis: chronic myeloid leukemia.
“Thirty-five-years-old, in the middle of my career, and I ended up with the cancer.”
Aguirre’s genetic tests came back clear, the most logical explanation for his sickness was his line of work.
Joe Hester, the executive vice president of the Professional Firefighters of Arizona, said unfortunately, cancer is now commonplace among departments across the country.
“They are building everything out of synthetics now,” he said. “So, fires burn hotter, they burn quicker, and the toxins being released are a lot more dangerous.”
Shortly after Aguirre’s diagnosis, another Goodyear firefighter was diagnosed with a different form of cancer. Fire Capt. Stephen Gilman said it was a blow to the small, tightknit department.
“You never really expect it to hit home. When two of our members were diagnosed, both over just 30 years of age, it definitely is a wake up call,” said Gilman.
Arizona has a presumptive law coverage that should cover the health care costs for firefighters battling cancer, but it is sometimes complicated.
Brain, bladder, rectal, colon, lymphoma, leukemia, and adenocarcinoma are all on the list. In Aguirre’s case, his cancer qualifies him for coverage, but his workman’s compensation claim got denied.
He will be on an oral form of chemotherapy the rest of his life, costing $12,000 a month. Without the coverage, Aguirre could potentially have to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket.
“It makes it pretty difficult. You’re sick, you’re going through treatment, you don’t feel good, you’re in bed,” he said. “The last thing that you need is to be worrying about is ‘My claim got denied and I have to come up with at least $10,000 for a lawyer.’”
Gilman thinks the process should be easier for a member to prove the correlation between cancer and fighting fires.
“It’s called presumptive, but we still have to prove our case. I would like to see it be made a little bit easier and put a little less stress on that member and their families,” he said.
Aguirre’s main focus is preventing other firefighters from getting cancer, too.
“If I can prevent their families, their wife, their kids, going through what my family is going through, and what Austin’s family is going through, then its worth it, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes,” Aguirre said.
The department already took that first step, with a “cancer pledge” all the members have signed. The pledge has guidelines the members should take to further decrease the risk of exposure to toxins.
“Little things like, you know, wearing your SCBA, which is your breathing apparatus from the moment you enter the fire, which is common place here, but also make sure you’re wearing it during overhaul,” said Gilman.
Other guidelines include having two sets of turnouts, wiping soot off of cancer-prone areas, and keeping equipment and themselves clean and contamination-free.
“We are trying to change the whole culture of the department,” said Gilman.
The “cancer pledge” is gaining popularity, Goodyear officials say departments from across the Valley and even the country have called and asked about it.
Aguirre is cancer-free as of yesterday, but will have to continue his oral form of chemotherapy for the rest of his life.
He should know whether his claim is approved in the next couple months, but in the meantime, he is concentrating his efforts on prevention.