Why Cancer Is Killing Boston’s Firefighters

Turns out the deadliest part about being one of our city’s rescuers isn’t running into a burning building.
firefighters cancer boston Michelle Kannler

“Wearing your mask is still not considered cool,” says Michelle Kannler, who lost her firefighter husband to advanced-stage cancer last year. / Photograph by Ken Richardson

The problem isn’t limited to Boston. Just north of the Mystic River, in the heart of Chelsea, sits one of the busiest fire stations in the United States. Engine 2 responds to more than 4,000 calls each year, or roughly 11 a day. It’s a firehouse full of seasoned first responders who also know the pain of burying a colleague. It was here that Pete Kannler spent years doing the job he loved.

Broad-shouldered with dark facial hair, Pete was born in Melrose and raised in Wakefield. At age 28, he married the love of his life, Michelle, had two daughters, and settled down in Townsend, a quiet blue-collar suburb that straddles the border with New Hampshire. Pete relished working at the firehouse until one day in July 2015, when he went to the bathroom and noticed blood in his stool. He said he felt fine, but Michelle, a nurse, knew that this was cause for concern. It was probably an ulcer, she told him, but she wanted him to visit the hospital to make sure. Several hours later, doctors at Lowell General Hospital routed a scope down his throat and found a tumor at the junction of his esophagus and stomach. The next morning, a CAT scan revealed that his liver and lymph nodes were overrun with cancerous cells—he was diagnosed at Stage 4. When doctors delivered the news, Pete didn’t wallow in self-pity. Instead, he asked, “What do we do now?” His wife sat next to him, knowing that this was not a battle he could easily win.

When Pete first met with a team of specialists at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, they wasted little time reaching a consensus on the cause of his disease: His advanced cancer was courtesy of his career. An instructor at the fire academy—where, ironically, he helped launch a cancer-awareness-and-prevention program—Pete was cut to his core. He couldn’t help but wonder whether the hundreds of young men and women he had trained over the years would suffer a similar fate.

Pete knew he was in bad shape, but he was far from ready to surrender. He and his wife read reams of dense medical texts and scrutinized alternative therapies on the Internet, determined to learn everything they could about his illness and the risks of being a firefighter. Michelle recalled the dozens of “Salty Jake” tales she’d heard throughout the years from her husband and his buddies, and she dwelled on the culture that so enamored them. “There was a time when all of the firefighters wanted that seasoned, ashy look on their faces after leaving a fire,” she says. “They would put their masks on when they were directly by the fire, but when they weren’t, they would leave off the masks.”

Other issues trouble Michelle as well. At Engine 2, she knew firefighters often responded to back-to-back emergencies with little or no break. Many times, Pete didn’t have time to shower between fires, and he consistently wore the same turnout clothing and safety equipment, even if it was still slathered in soot and chemicals from the previous call. “The gear was so dirty,” Michelle recalls. “They had no choice but to be surrounded by it, even long after the fire.”

Like her husband, the cancer was stubborn and resilient. Pete endured round after round of intensive chemotherapy, with devastating side effects including memory loss and painful rashes. Simple tasks such as sending a text message became a grueling physical feat. There was also the psychological toll of going from being a man who rescued others to someone who could no longer get cold milk from the fridge for his daughter. By the end of September 2016, his liver was obliterated and the cancer had taken over. “He finally said to me, ‘If this is it, you need to tell me,’’’ Michelle says. Less than a week later, her husband died at age 37. “From diagnosis to death,” she says, “it took 13 months.”

Michelle is grateful for the flowers and expressions of concern from firefighters and activists following her husband’s death, but worries that conditions for firefighters will never improve. “People say they’ll never forget or that this won’t happen to others,” she says. But she knows that the very same people in Engine 2 who worked alongside her husband and champion his legacy are still pulling off their masks at fire scenes and needlessly exposing themselves to the same risks that ultimately killed her husband. “Wearing your mask,” she says with frustration, “is still not considered cool.”

Today, Michelle is working with young recruits at the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy, where she shares her husband’s story. She is also a force on social media, calling out firefighters who in photographs aren’t properly wearing their safety gear. “Where is your mask?” she’ll write in the comments. Still, Michelle knows that raising awareness can only go so far. Protecting the area’s firefighters requires political will and lots of money, and it feels like firefighters are constantly playing catch-up.

 

As of now, there is no silver bullet to stop firefighters from getting cancer. So much of protecting them comes down to ensuring that they have the right equipment to do the job, and that hasn’t always been easy in Boston. For years, firefighters had a single set of gear and were stuck with oxygen tanks that provided a mere half-hour’s worth of air. Commissioner Finn doesn’t mince words when it comes to why: “The past administration didn’t care.” Under Mayor Thomas Menino, the Boston Fire Department was largely viewed as resistant to change, and the relationship between the fire union and department leadership was strained, especially when it came to the issue of safety equipment. “The fire union,” Finn says, “was always pushing the last administration to look at this.”

Then Mayor Marty Walsh took office, the gridlock let up, and results began to show. Last October, Walsh announced $4.5 million worth of new oxygen tanks that give first responders 50 percent more air than the previous tanks. The department also struck up a partnership with Dana-Farber to screen firefighters earlier and more frequently for cancer. The fact remains, however, that firefighters in Boston are still contending with the unintended consequences of lingering flame-retardants—which the city refused to ban for so many years.

At least earlier in the spring, the city finally acted on reducing new flame-retardants. Under growing pressure from firefighter groups, the city council voted to modify Boston’s fire prevention codes so that they fall in line with the rest of the state. That means hospitals, schools, colleges, and other public buildings equipped with sprinklers are no longer beholden to flame-retardant mandates. Saunders says it’s a step in the right direction, but there’s still work to be done, particularly when it comes to homes and apartment buildings, where flame-retardants make their way into living rooms and bedrooms in any number of items. In response, state Representative Marjorie Decker has introduced legislation aimed at cracking down on flame-retardants in household furniture and children’s products. The chemical industry has been vocal in its criticisms of the proposal, but to cancer patients such as Preston, it seems like an easy choice.

Fighting fires is an inherently risky job, and there is no way to completely safeguard the men and women who devote their lives to saving others from the invisible threats lurking in the smoke. Nobody knows this better than Preston. The tumor in his chest has made life for him, his wife, and his four children a living hell. Over the past year, he’s gone through six rounds of chemotherapy, each so intense that he had to be admitted to the hospital for a full week to safely receive and recover from the treatment. “This cancer is so advanced,” Preston says. “It messes with your mind.”

Ever the optimist, though, Preston sees a silver lining. He praises Walsh for supporting the fire department and appreciates Finn remaining by his side. Volumes have been written on the special bonds that firefighters share with one another, and it is clear to Preston that these bonds hold steady whether the enemy is a five-alarm inferno in Southie or a potentially fatal malignancy.

Like the flames of a house fire, cancer has a way of being unpredictable. It changes course, flares up, tapers off, and remains a threat long after you think it’s been extinguished. Whether Preston lives or dies, he hopes his experiences will serve as a cautionary tale to every firefighter out there. “We’re trained to put out fires and save people,” he says. “We were never taught about cancer.”




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