How the Death of Three Syracuse Firefighters Inspired a Cancer Screening Event Three Pasted Firefighters Legacy is Helping to Save the Next Generation

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) During the last year, COVID-19 has delayed many important events, health screenings being one of them. For firefighters, this could mean life or death.

Cancer is the number one cause of death for firefighters. This Saturday, the Firefighter Cancer Foundation of New York is hoping to change that statistic by hosting an early detection cancer screening event for active and retired Syracuse firefighters. The event is in collaboration with Hematology Oncology Associates and Crouse Hospital to test for seven different cancers as well as EKG and exercise stress tests, all of which will be covered by insurance. 

“You can go in and get every one of these screenings done and not have to worry about your insurance because it’s all covered and it’s all done in one place,” said Michael Valenti, founder of the Firefighter Cancer Foundation New York chapter.

Firefighters have a 9% higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14% higher risk of dying from cancer than the general U.S. population. Since firefighters are exposed to carcinogens throughout their career, they can develop cancer earlier than the general public. However, cancer screenings for firefighters are not covered by insurance until they are 45 years old. The event this weekend worked with Excellus to get all of the testing 100% covered, and the age restriction has been lowered to 40 years old.  

Valenti founded the Firefighter Cancer Foundation New York chapter after three coworkers passed away from cancer during 2014 and 2015. Within a span of 11 months, firefighters Garry Grethel, Thomas Erwin and Alex Cimino, all in their early 50s, died of cancer. 

Grethel was active on the line at Station Eight, Erwin was a distinct chief in charge of inspections, and Cimino worked in the training division.

“Three different roles in the fire department, but all had cancer at the same time,” Valenti said.

These three men left behind wives and children, but for one son, his father’s passing has not deterred him from following the same passion as his dad.

“Alex Jr. is going to be a firefighter for the city of Syracuse and follow in his father’s footsteps,” Valenti said. 

The mass cancer screening event this weekend hopes to change the lives of the next generation of firefighters. The Firefighter Cancer Foundation works with cancer patients and their families to ensure they have the support necessary to complete treatment, as well as, provide firefighters and their station with the correct equipment needed to make the job safer for those who risk their lives for their communities.

The goal of this event is to get at least 60 out of the 350 Syracuse firefighters to go out and get tested. 

“If there is an early detection and it means we did something right, it’s the biggest positive that can come out of this,” Valenti said. “We know we are taking 11-13 years of our life, just because of what we do, and we’re still gonna do it. We all love our job, and we still go to work every day knowing that this stuff is happening to us.”

The Firefighter Cancer Foundation of New York consists of Tim Downes, Adam Clark, Brian Zalick, Paul Lukacs, Robert Brandt, Tom Webster, Tom Sexton, Al Van Donsel, Luke Tortarella, Dan Orr and Michael Valenti. This group of individuals is dedicated to helping firefighters and their families going through cancer. For more information check out their website.


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