A group of female firefighters on Thursday presented the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation with a check for $13,000 to help fund research on the impact of the toxics they breathe while on the job.
No studies have been conducted to determine a definitive link between cancer and female firefighters, but the statistics are sobering.
According to the National Cancer Institute, 1.4 percent of the general population of women aged 40 to 49 will be diagnosed with breast cancer. In the San Francisco Fire Department, the number currently stands at 13.6 percent, or nearly 10 times greater.
Lisa Holdcroft, a firefighter paramedic at Station 22 in San Francisco's Inner Sunset neighborhood and a recent breast cancer survivor, said she believes her cancer was related to work exposures.
Despite the dangers, known and unknown, Holdcroft decided to return to work six months after surgery. "It's what I enjoy, it's what I'm trained for, and no, it's not going to stop me from doing my job," she said.
Discussing the startling rates of cancer can be difficult, according to Heather Buren of the United Fire Service Women. "The tangible aspects of being a firefighter, running into a building -- we can talk about that, we can look at that," said. "The less tangible, the cancers that we're all getting, it's harder to look at. It's hard for us to talk about."
A study on cancer in female firefighters has never been done -- not because few have the disease, but because until now there haven't been enough in the department long enough to meet researchers' requirements for a focus group. But that's no longer true.
The San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation is hoping to get a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for UC Berkeley researchers to conduct a comprehensive study on toxic exposure. The aim is for the study to be in place by the end of the year.
"It is our hope, the foundation's hope, and the department's hope that with the major medical institutions that we have here in the Bay Area, somebody is going to pick up the ball and help us to start to track the women in this profession," said Tony Stefani, president of the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation.