CHICAGO — When it comes to occupational hazards, few jobs are as dangerous as fighting fires.
“I fell through a floor once,” said veteran firefighter Michael Butkus. “High rise fires, those are the worst, and you don't think you're going to get out of there.”
Butkus has been with the Chicago Fire Department for three decades. He spent 28 years in the field. He says when he was starting out wearing an oxygen mask wasn’t considered a priority.
“I don't care how long you wear a mask for, how many bottles you go through, you're still going to get some of that stuff in your lungs,” said Butkus.
Even with better safety gear, today’s firefighters battle blazes in homes made of more synthetic and petroleum-based materials that are extremely carcinogenic.
Experts say firefighters have a 60% increased risk of developing lung cancer and a 14 to 15% increased risk of dying from cancer compared to the normal population.
“I was having issues coughing it, and I went to my primary doctor, and he sent me in for an X-ray,” said retired firefighter William Nolan.
But for Nolan, the greatest risk to his life came years after his 40-year career battling blazes was over.
“It was a tumor in the lower lobe of the left lung,” he said.
Surgeons were able to successfully remove the cancerous mass from his lung, something that may have been caught earlier with regular screenings.
“It was a fairly sizable tumor is bigger than a baseball for sure,” said Nolan’s surgeon, Dr. Christopher Seder, director of thoracic surgery at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center. “If we would have caught that later, then the chances of curing that cancer would have been significantly less.”
Nolan would’ve been eligible for early screening, having been a former smoker.
Anyone who has smoked a pack per day for 30 years and is 55 to 77 years old meets the criteria.
Still, regular lung screenings are not part of the general care for firefighters. Experts say they should be.
“They're particularly exposed to various carcinogens, various chemicals, in addition to many firefighters who smoke, which increase that risk,” said Seder.
Michael Butkus decided to get the low dose CT lung scan screening for the first time.
But Dr. Seder says it’s not just for veterans and retirees.
Despite advancements in safety gear, he says today’s firefighters still inhale dangerous levels of noxious smoke.
“Now, all the synthetic materials used in buildings that are burning the range of toxic carcinogens is significantly greater than it was,” said Dr. Seder.
Five years of surveillance following William Nolan’s first surgery provided an early alert to doctors of a second cancerous spot on his lung that was also successfully removed.
“This time, I was surprised. Yeah, especially when they say if you go five years, you should be scot-free,” said Nolan.
Butkus’ screening came back clear of cancer. But his advice to fellow firefighters is not to wait until it’s too late.
“I've been around a long time, and I've seen a lot of guys die of cancer, and it ain’t the way to go,” he said.
It’s something experts say early screenings could help prevent.