Firefighters face visible hazards of smoke and flames when answering the call for help, but it is the unseen danger of onsite carcinogens that is causing higher rates of cancer diagnoses and deaths among these heroic first responders. That is why the Salah Foundation recently awarded Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Firefighter Cancer Initiative $100,000 to launch a mobile clinic and increase much-needed access to cancer education and screening for South Florida firefighters.
“The Salah Foundation is dedicated to the kind of education, research, and outreach initiatives that strengthen the health and development of communities,” said Noreen Salah Burpee, executive director of the Salah Foundation. “We are delighted to support a program that builds on rigorous community-based research to address a devastating public health issue for firefighters and their families.”
Founded by Erin Kobetz, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate director for population science and cancer disparity at Sylvester, and led by a multidisciplinary team of scientists, health care practitioners and occupational health and safety experts, the Firefighter Cancer Initiative (FCI) was launched in 2015 to address a public health crisis within the firefighter population.
“We were looking at troubling data from multiple sources pointing to a disproportionate number of cancer diagnoses and deaths in the firefighter community,” said Dr. Kobetz, who is also the vice provost for research and scholarship at the University of Miami. “Thanks to the Salah Foundation’s support of a mobile screening and education program, we can now expand our efforts to better understand the cancer burden in this population, use evidence-based methods to reduce risks, and ultimately save lives by taking our cancer prevention and wellness initiatives to firefighters.”
Two large-scale studies by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health show that firefighters across the United States face a 9% increase in cancer diagnoses, and a 14% increase in cancer-related deaths, compared with the general population. Other studies attribute as many as 61% of firefighter deaths from 2002 to 2017 to cancer.
The Firefighter Cancer Initiative Mobile Screening and Education Program will address the critical access gap in the program’s efforts to bring cancer education and screenings to firefighters. Guided by a strong partnership with fire departments across Florida, the FCI set up Sylvester’s Cancer Prevention and Wellness Clinic to meet the cancer prevention needs of firefighters and other high-risk occupational groups.
The statewide collaboration also helped develop the concept of the mobile clinic as a strong outreach plan to make accessing services easier. “Given job responsibilities, work shifts, and distance from the clinic, firefighters cannot receive the information and clinical interventions they need,” Dr. Kobetz said. “A mobile clinic, staffed by an experienced team, will allow us to effectively address this access gap. Thanks to the strength of our partnerships and the Salah Foundation’s support, we can reach a diverse set of departments, regions, and firefighters across South Florida.”
The mobile clinic team will also help participating departments screen for COVID-19, an important role they have taken on since the outset of the pandemic.
“The Firefighter Cancer Initiative reflects the best of Sylvester’s outreach programs designed to address health disparities in cancer prevention and treatment,” said Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., director of Sylvester and the Oscar de la Renta Endowed Chair in Cancer Research. “We are grateful for the Salah Foundation’s timely support as we continue to improve access to life-saving health information for firefighters across South Florida and reduce the community’s cancer burden.”
The Salah Foundation was established in honor of Noreen Salah Burpee’s uncle, James M. Salah, as a living tribute to his lifelong dedication to philanthropy. The Foundation’s interests lie in medical research, community development, and self-sufficiency programs that are directed at the economically disadvantaged, the young, the elderly, and the disabled.
Burpee, a recipient of the prestigious Ellis Island Medal of Honor recognizing the contributions of immigrants in the United States, guides the Salah Foundation’s invitation-only grant process. The Foundation recently awarded a two-year, $1 million grant to the renowned Bascom Palmer Eye Institute for research into age-related macular degeneration, one of the major causes of vision loss among the elderly. Bascom Palmer serves as the Department of Ophthalmology for UM’s Miller School of Medicine.
“We are grateful for the Salah Foundation’s generosity,” said Dr. Kobetz. “It is a real game changer in our work to address health disparities around cancer education and prevention.”