He's been serving with the kern county fire department for over 23 years, but it was August of 2020 that Battalion Chief, and 51-year-old, Butch Agosta discovered he had kidney cancer--around the time that another family member passed away from cancer.
“You start making promises that you’re going to be strong and fight, trying to keep my wife positive through all this, but it was rough,” Agosta said. “It was slow growing and gradual, so being tired and having pains here and there, I attributed to being a firefighter and working and having issues that way. I never thought of it as actually being cancer.”
It's more common than you would think. According to the International Association of Firefighters, it is the leading cause of firefighter deaths. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health examined 30,000 firefighters from 1950 to 2010 in the U.S. and found that firefighters are 14 percent more likely to pass away from cancer than the general U.S. population.
Agosta said he feels blessed to be in remission, cancer free after removing his kidney with screenings every three months. He added that if he hadn’t suspected having a kidney stone, his cancer would have gone unchecked and been more dire.
“And when we’re out there doing the work, working hard we’re in the middle of the smoke, we just don’t think about it,” Agosta said.
Agosta’s advice to fellow firefighters is to get screened early no matter your age, heed training, and take precaution on the job, like wearing the self containing breathing apparatus.
“[It’s] so we can breathe in a place that we’re not supposed to be breathing in the bad contaminants, but that gets cumbersome. It gets old, so you want to take it off, So the best thing firefighters can do today is leave it on. Make sure that atmosphere is clean and available for you to breathe.”
Agosta pointed out that the past decade the KC Fire department has fired up education of cancer and safety, in addition to working on setting up a formal cancer program.
Some safety features already in place for their firefighters: they have two sets of turnouts, two hoods, cleaning schedules, gloves and wipes and battalion chiefs have extra gear. They also have special furniture, special laundry soap, gross decon for after a fire and exhaust vents.
These precautions and programs he says are vital, since a few local firefighters like him, have also been recently diagnosed with cancer. At the end of the day what kept his strong through it--his family, his faith and "the brotherhood of the fire department. I work for the county fire, but so many people called me including the Bakersfield Fire Department. It's a real brotherhood, a real family."
Agosta added that cancer screenings for firefighters should be based on “time of service” instead of age, as younger and younger firefighters are going into service.