RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - We rely on firefighters to help us when we are most vulnerable, but as they rush in, they are also being exposed to more dangers than just a fire. For fighters in Virginia and around the nation, their job now has them in a battle for their lives.
"Twice a day, morning and night. I never thought at 41, I'd be having a pill box already," said firefighter John Frye. "I take nine pills in the morning, 11 pills at night." It's his weekly ritual, filling his pill box with medicine to keep him alive.
Back in July, Frye learned he had acute myeloid leukemia. He said the diagnosis came out of nowhere. He'd always been the picture of heath, a bear of a man, focused on his family and his job. But could his job - a job he loves - have made him sick? Frye is one of a growing number of firefighters diagnosed with cancer each year. Multiple scientific studies show it's not a coincidence.
"I can tell you the day I was told I have cancer, it stuck. It's like, you put that on me that day," said Bob Kirby.
Kirby, another firefighter, has skin cancer. For more than 40 years, he's run into burning buildings when everyone else was running out.
"When you're done, you smell it on your body. You have to wash it off your body," he said. "There's a reason to think that whatever is burning can get into your skin and cause cancer."
Researchers agree, citing exposure to toxic, burning chemicals. A 2006 study found firefighters have a much greater rate of certain cancers than other professions. Among them, brain, skin, prostate and testicular cancers.
34 states have acknowledged the link between firefighting and an increased risk for cancer. Those states, including Virginia, now have laws that guarantee benefits.
"It's about leaving their family with something, and hopefully providing the kind of treatment and protection that they need going forward," said Mike Mohler.
Mohler was instrumental in getting the law passed in Virginia. A firefighter for 38 years, he's president of the Virginia Professional Firefighters Association, and now he's battling prostate cancer.
"It's like 15 or 16 people who have cancer," said Mohler. "Some are in the process and are going to be successful. Others are not only battling for their life but battling for, you know, what's going to be left for their families."
Frye longs to put his uniform back on. He had a bone marrow transplant in October and just marked his 100th day of recovery.
"I fell like I'm not only fighting cancer for me, but for the team that kind of gathered around me," said Frye.
It echoes the belief that Frye says guides his battle with cancer - a belief evident in a photo of one of the World Trade Center towers that hangs in his living room.
"It kind of reflected my life. Whatever they threw at me, I'm still standing," he said.
Local departments are aggressively trying to lessen the risk for firefighters by using more restrictive air quality guidelines for their self contained breathing apparatuses. Last year, Henrico held classes and created cancer prevention guidelines to help lessen their firefighter's exposure to carcinogens.