Firefighter Cancer Awareness: Modifiable Cancer Risks

You may know that firefighters have a 9% higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer, and a 14% higher risk of dying from it than the general population. But that doesn’t mean we have to sit back and take that as “part of the job.” Much can be done to lower these stats, including changing our modifiable cancer risks.

A cancer risk factor is anything that increases a person’s risk of developing cancer. Modifiable cancer risk factors are what we can change, including health behaviors and exposures such as healthy diet, adequate sleep, stress management and reducing exposure to toxic chemicals. Non-modifiable cancer risk factors include things like genetics, age, gender and race, and certain exposures.  

As firefighters know, there are many factors that simply can’t be changed, so more emphasis needs to be placed changing the ones that can. Individual risk factors are much easier to change, while operational factors may take some more effort.



The leading causes of death for fire fighters are cancer and heart disease, but proper nutrition and exercise, as well as limiting or avoiding tobacco and alcohol use can go a long way.

Here are two programs that can help:
IAFF Nutrition Program
IAFF Peer Fitness Trainer Program

Annual Medical Exam

Occupational exposures increase the risk of fire fighters developing occupational cancers and diseases.  An annual medical exam is preventative medicine, and early detection may be the key to survival.

Take this medical form developed by the Firefighter Cancer Support Network to your doctor!

Adequate Sleep

Sleep is something that may elude many firefighters, including Fire Captain and cancer-survivor Clint who says, “My sleep patterns have been horrible and only have gotten worse throughout the years.”

Because regardless of the shift schedule, there is always an overnight shift and busy or short-staffed stations have less down time to recover, rehab or sleep. It is vital for departments to ensure daily rest and recovery for the crews. When off shift firefighters should sleep without distractions such as TV, cell phones and music, and with limited light.


Occupational Stress

Firefighting is physically dangerous and psychologically strenuous. In fact, if Clint could go back and change anything about his time as a firefighter, he would have been less aggressive with his body.

“I think I would not have always been the guy who would lift the heavy things or the gurney by myself,” he said. “I would have liked to have saved the damage I have done to my body so I could enjoy a healthy retirement.”

Between emergency calls at all hours of the day and night, traumatic experience exposure is also very common. Firefighters must find ways to avoid internalizing stress, like seeking behavioral health services, exercising to relieve tension, or even meditation.

Toxic Chemical Exposures

Toxic chemicals, including asbestos fibers, diesel engine exhaust and formaldehyde, are released in smoke and soot from all fires. The lack of proper PPE and effective decon efforts leads to increased chemical exposure and the risk of occupational cancer.

Here are simple steps firefighters can take to greatly reduce this exposure and their cancer risk, and that of their family:

  • On-scene gross decontamination of PPE and equipment
  • Clean cab program; do not bring contaminated gear and equipment in the cab
  • Wash hands and use wet wipes to remove contaminants from skin.
  • Have a change of clothes on the engine and, if possible, change uniform on scene
  • Shower within the hour of returning to the station
  • Launder PPE according to NFPA and manufacturer guidance
  • Launder station uniform

There is still much to discover about how cancer affects firefighters, and what can be done, but we do know that prevention is key. Awareness and a few lifestyle changes can make a huge impact on the health and safety of firefighters and those they love.