Firefighters battle cancer more than most

Joel Johnston, IFD (WTHR photo)
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Joel Johnston, who has spent his career fighting fires, is now fighting for his life. He was diagnosed just weeks ago at the age of 44 with Stage 4 cancer throughout his body.

Though he's never smoked a cigarette, IFD Capt. Mark Rapp coughed during our interview with him because he, too, is battling cancer.

"There is no cure for this cancer," he said. "The best option I have is remission."

The likely cause is the 10 days Rapp spent at Ground Zero. As part of Indiana Task Force One, he was involved in recovery efforts after 9/11. Even after his diagnosis, Rapp said he would have still made the decision to go to Ground Zero and would have become a firefighter.

Cancer has become an occupational hazard for those in the fire service.

“Off the top of my head, I can think of six people...six firefighters who have some form of cancer,” said IFD Captain Tim McDonnell, himself a cancer survivor who heads up Indiana's Firefighter Cancer Survivor Network. “The general population cancer rates are starting to go down; for firefighters the cancer rates are going up."

One possible cause: modern homes are full of synthetic materials that become toxic when they burn.

“Didn't think of it. Truly did not think that I'd get cancer,” said Rapp, “and when I came on, you did suck a little smoke. You were taught that, 'Hey, c'mon kid, you got to save that air if you need it. You need to just take a couple breaths, get back in there and let's do the job'.”

That was 35 years ago, when Rapp, now 60 years old, joined IFD. Now, firefighters have sophisticated self-contained breathing apparatus, or SCBAs. They work, if they're worn. The problem is, many take them off. So Mark's message to firefighters is simple.

“It's time that we wear our SCBAs all the time.”

His message to the rest of us: “Enjoy life. Every day...as your last. That's true.”

And this, coming from a man who starts his second round of chemotherapy on Tuesday.

“Anything you do in life, you go at it with a positive attitude. And I think there's a better outcome for it.”