RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A Raleigh man who went from fighting fires to fighting cancer, is now fighting for easier access to cancer treatment.
The Firefighters Fighting Cancer Act, or House Bill 520, passed the North Carolina House this summer, but is stalled in the state Senate.
“We’re the ones that you call to help when people are in these dangerous situations around these toxic chemicals. Somebody has got to do it. If you want them to come do the job, you need to be willing to help them out if they need it,” said Brent Upton.
Upton always wanted to help people. He thought joining the Raleigh Fire Department in 2006 was the perfect fit.
However, his 12-year career came to an abrupt end last May after feeling a sharp pain in his side. After testing and a biopsy, doctors diagnosed Upton with esophageal cancer.
“It shocked us. We had no idea. That was the last thing I’d thought he’d say it was,” said the 36-year-old.
After six months of chemotherapy, Upton chose to medically retire.
“It wiped out all of my sick time, all of my vacation time that I had accrued for 12 years,” he said.
According to the International Association of Firefighters, cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters.
Currently, worker’s compensation doesn’t cover cancer treatment for North Carolina’s firefighters unless a firefighter can prove their cancer was caused by their job.
The state does provide a $100,000 death benefit to the families of firefighters who die from certain cancers.
“I never got anything from the city. The only money or funds I got were from my fellow firefighters’ paychecks, from their pocket giving it to me because the treatment is expensive,” Upton said.
Under HB520, if a firefighter is diagnosed with one of the nine cancers that studies show firefighters are more susceptible to, they could apply to have treatment covered by worker’s compensation.
The proposal requires eligible firefighters to be on the job for at least five years.
The North Carolina League of Municipalities opposes the bill, telling CBS 17 that many people work under dangerous and hazardous conditions.
“Cities and towns value all their employees. They work together through this organization to conduct training to address firefighter wellness and health. They provide a range of benefits to all groups of employees – including health insurance and pension benefits – whose costs have been rising significantly in recent years.
It’s important to recognize that many workers in both the public and private sectors sometimes work under dangerous and hazardous conditions. Providing different benefits to those workers based on whether they work in the public or private sector, and whether local taxpayers ultimately pay for the benefits, is not good public policy and raises the potential of constitutional challenges,” said Scott Mooneyham, the Director of Political Communication & Coordination for the North Carolina League of Municipalities.
Though no longer fighting fires, Upton is still trying to help people especially the next generation of firefighters.
“It scares me honestly. I work down next to these guys going to training,” said Upton. “I’m like ‘oh man. That was me in 2006.'”
Upston says he’s not done fighting.
“Somebody else in the department is going to get it, and other departments,” said Upton. “The rates are so much higher than the regular population with all the chemicals we come into contact with at fires or hazmat calls.”