Firefighter learns colon cancer has been linked to Ground Zero

Greg Hess volunteered at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks.
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A local volunteer at Ground Zero says he has just learned he is a victim of the 9/11 attacks.

Greg Hess says playing in an over-50 softball league is partly exercise, but the camaraderie is what keeps him coming back. It's like rapport at the firehouse, where he has served 31 years as a paramedic and firefighter.

"He's seen a lot, he's done a lot," said firefighter Larry Rak.

Twenty-four hours after planes hit the World Trade Center, Hess, now 56, was one of 62 members of Indiana Task Force One en route to help. They worked in the rubble for eight days.

"If it happened again, I would go back again in a heartbeat. I was proud to be there. It forever changed my life," Hess said.

Unfortunately, it also changed his health.

"I was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer a little after five years from returning from Ground Zero and you would think most would be inhalation, but they have since found out that there have been 56 kinds of cancer attributed to rescuers who were at Ground Zero," Hess said.

He recently received a letter from the World Trade Center health program, confirming his colon cancer was a health condition covered for treatment benefits.

"They ruled that I have now been diagnosed as a victim of 9/11," Hess said.

"I guess it's kind of good news, you have some sort of explanation. It's bittersweet," said St. Vincent Oncologist Dr. Jenelle Miller. "A lot of bad exposures were down there."

Miller sent Hess's medical records to the federal government and says the ruling is based on illness incidence rates, not specific agents.

"Sometimes, just exposures in our system, in our bloodstream, they get to other places in the body and they can increase the risk of their cancers," Miller said.

For Hess, it is at least an answer as to why and 100 percent financial coverage if his cancer comes back.

But Hess hasn't been waiting around for the news. As he recovered, he led the effort to build the 9/11 memorial downtown.

"It will be around a long time after I am gone," he said.

Hess now works at Station 42. He says he wore the specialized particulate masks with canisters while he worked at Ground Zero.

Miller released Hess after he was five-years cancer free but says this new news means he is at higher risk for a whole list of other cancers and she now believes he should be monitored more closely.