Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Guest Column: October 2014

By Carol-Lynn Chambers   

Features Health and Wellness Wellness

Firefighter and photographer Kim Fitzsimmons said the best accessories a girl can have are confidence and a Halligan.

Firefighter and photographer Kim Fitzsimmons said the best accessories a girl can have are confidence and a Halligan. When it comes to breast cancer, and all cancers for that matter, the best accessories a firefighter (woman or man) can have are confidence and information.

We’re all familiar with the tools we use in the fire service. But how familiar are we with the tools we can use to deal with cancer? The main tool in the fight against cancer is knowledge. Knowledge is, indeed, power.

As we learn more about breast cancer, so too can we learn about the ways we can prevent, fight, and recover from cancer. Firefighters, particularly female firefighters, however, are at a higher risk of breast cancer than everyone else.

By harnessing the tools we have at hand, we can launch a full-scale attack on breast cancer. The toolbox is full:

  • Prevention strategies – health, fitness, diet, lifestyle, effective protective equipment
  • Early detection – screening, self-examination, regular medical checkups
  • Treatment – understanding the range of options, risks, and benefits of the many treatment options available
  • Recovery – self-identity, confidence, self-esteem
  • Sharing – our experiences, learning, information, and knowledge with others
  • Support – networks, both formal and informal, to support our colleagues that are on this journey

From knowledge we can make informed choices about how best to help ourselves and others. Just as firefighters must choose the right tools to approach a structure fire, we can make knowledgeable choices about tools we can use to battle breast cancer.

And just like every decision firefighters face when the tones go off, the tools we pull out of the toolbox can be different for different situations. But one element remains consistent: our ability to reach out, talk to others, and help each other as well as ourselves.

Many people avoid the topic of cancer out of fear, but fear never solved a problem. Usually it is fear of the unknown – what if I get breast cancer? What if it isn’t caught early? What will others think? How will this affect my femininity/masculinity? What if I die? How long can I keep this a secret from my friends and family? More questions than answers. But fear never extinguished a fire – nor will it eradicate breast cancer.

It’s time to start reading and talking about breast cancer; it’s more than pink ribbons, T-shirts, and fire trucks. Dealing with cancer means being informed and taking action to prevent and support, just as we do for other situations in the fire service. Here are some ideas:

Start the conversation – speak up: The brotherhood and sisterhood of the fire service is a solid foundation from which to start. When was the last time you asked colleagues if they have been screened for breast cancer? We’re quick to ask about flu/cold symptoms or how the kids are doing; let’s deepen the conversation.

Nutrition – eat up: You are what you eat; think about healthy eating and fitness opportunities together at work – whether you ride the trucks or work in communications, prevention, or administration.

Exercise – get up: According to the National Cancer Institute,  women who exercise four or more hours a week have a lower risk of breast cancer. And, says the institute, the effect of exercise may be greatest in premenopausal women who have normal or low body weight.

Screening – pull up your top: Talk to your doctor about breast cancer, your occupation and risk factors, and check out the details of your provincial breast-screening program. For example, in Ontario, the Ontario Breast Screening Program now screens women between 30 and 69 who have been confirmed to be at high risk.

Support – step up: The Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN) provides support and assistance to fire department members and families. Although FCSN started in the United States, it is also accessible in Canada.

Protection – suit up: Simply put, protection is prevention. Wear your SCBA and other PPE.

Contribute – ante up: Get involved in local events that help to raise awareness and funding for firefighter cancer research and treatment. As an example, each year Canadian members of the IAFF have raised more than $55,000 for breast-cancer awareness.

Learn more – read up: There are generally three reasons why we don’t do something – we’re unaware, unable or unwilling. In this case, we can become aware about virtually every aspect of breast cancer, we just have to be willing. The wide range and accessibility of screening and treatment programs, as well as supportive tools such as presumptive legislation in most provinces (which supports firefighters and their families financially), go a long way to helping us be able to take the necessary steps from diagnosis to recovery.

IAFF general president Harold Schaitburger recently captured this message poignantly: “The connection between fire fighting and cancer is real, and there is scientific data to support our position. But we cannot stop there — we must continue to learn more so we can prevent our members from contracting this horrible disease and help them if they do.”

As firefighters know from training, a tool is useful only when you know how to use it, and actually take it out and practise with it. Let’s do everything we can to increase our knowledge of breast cancer so someday we can truly say we got this.

Carol-Lynn Chambers is the president of Fire Service Women Ontario ( and a section manager with the Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal. Contact her at and follow FSWO on Twitter at @FSWOntario

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