Winnipeg firefighters battle to prevent cancer

Click to play video: 'Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month'
Firefighter Cancer Awareness Month
Every year, firefighters around the world die of work related cancers -- which is why January is dedicated to bringing awareness to the occupational hazard. Global's Teagan Rasche reports on how Winnipeg firefighters are sparking change – Jan 10, 2023

Every year firefighters around the world die of work-related cancers, which is why January is dedicated to bringing awareness to the occupational hazard.

For Winnipeg firefighter Derek Balcaen, this month is personal.

“At the age of 43, I was diagnosed with bladder cancer, which is not the news anyone wants to get and no history of it in the family and really my only indicator was a contributing factor, I suppose, was firefighting,” Balcaen said.

After about a year of treatment, Balcaen, who’s also the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg vice-president, finally received some good news.

“Yesterday at a meeting with our doctor I finally got my clean bill of health after all the treatments,” Balcaen said. “We are in the clear for the time being.”

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Unfortunately, this kind of diagnosis isn’t unique to Balcaen.

“I would say every other week we are made aware of somebody, either an active member or a retiree, fighting some sort of cancer,” said Tom Bilous, United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg president.

The dangerous nature of the job puts many at risk related to repeated exposure to toxins.

“It’s not that we are inhaling the smoke, it’s what we absorb,” Bilous said. “Our gear, as much as it protects us personally, it’s still allowed to breathe and that’s why days after a fire we can still smell like a fire. That’s the body absorbing and the organs filtering it.”

Over the last few decades, Winnipeg firefighters have been at the forefront of change.

Twenty years ago, Manitoba became the first province in Canada to acknowledge the tragic connection between firefighting and cancer, with other provinces and countries following suit.

“We are now up to 19 cancers that are recognized at a higher incidence with firefighters than the general population,” Bilous said.

Last year, the World Health Organization classified firefighter occupational exposure as a Group 1 carcinogen.

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In Winnipeg, as the risks became more recognized, safety became a bigger priority.

“We’ve also been on the cutting edge of prevention,” Manitoba Professional Fire Fighters president Alex Forrest said. “Everything from clean policies, occupational hygiene, looking into other dietary factors, ensuring that our firefighters weren’t smoking as well.”

But until new technology improves the already top-of-the-line gear, these firefighters feel an obligation to the fallen to keep improving safety on the job.

Those who fought cancer are proudly leading the way.

“It brings it home, in terms of the importance of fighting for our members to prevent cancer in the fire department,” Balcaen said.

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