After watching his good friend and fellow firefighter die of colon cancer, Chris Conner vowed to help other firefighters find ways to detect the disease in its early stages.
Conner, who is president of the Bedford Professional Firefighters Association, worked with Fire Chief Sean Fay and the City Council, and now Bedford is the first in the country to contract with an Indiana-based company, MorNuCo, which provides the ONCOblot test. The test detects a protein in the blood that is present in malignant cells.
The council voted recently to help pay for the tests, which begin in March at the Fire Department. Conner said the cost will be shared among the city, the firefighters association and each firefighter who receives the test.
In December, Lt. Keith Long died after he was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer in 2013. The cancer eventually spread to his liver and lungs.
Long fought for his workers’ compensation benefits, arguing that his cancer was caused by exposure to carcinogens while he was on the job fighting fires and dealing with hazardous materials.
The Texas Municipal League Intergovernmental Risk Pool denied the benefits, saying that colon cancer is not listed as being caused by on-the-job exposure.
“I talked to Keith’s wife. As hard as it was, to say if we could make a difference for one person from this day forward, if we can make a change with this, then we’ve done our job,” Conner said. “I was trying to find a way. I was trying to do everything I could to help Lt. Long. I didn’t know about the blood tests.”
Conner said he heard about the test from a Canadian company that uses trained dogs to sniff masks that people breathe into as a way to detect cancer, but the results weren’t as reliable as the blood tests, he said.
Rebecca Davis, director of marketing for ONCOblot Labs, said the test detects the specific protein in malignant cells and also determines the tissue of origin. It can indicate 25 types of cancer including colorectal, kidney and breast cancer.
A physician must order the test.
“This could be one more tool, one more piece of information,” she said.
The test is in the process of getting approval from the Food and Drug Administration, and Davis said it meets all of the governmental guidelines, so it is not experimental.
Fay, the fire chief, said firefighters are six times more likely to get cancer than the general public, so he wanted to do all he could to help Conner get the test in place.
Usually, the tests cost about $1,000, which is not covered by insurance companies because the test hasn’t gotten approved by the FDA. The company offered the test for firefighters for $650, Fay said.
The city will pay $400 per firefighter, the firefighters association will pay $150 and each firefighter will pay $100.
Fay said the department is also working with a doctor who will order the tests.
Testing will be done at the fire station, he said, and it takes around three weeks to get the results.
“There are plenty of fire departments that understand the challenges that we are up against,” Fay said.
“There are people who have died early deaths who are firefighters, and we believe it is because of this occupation. We hope that taking the lead will enable other cities to do the same thing,” Fay said.
Conner said he wants to see the tests become a national standard for firefighters.
“I want to think big. This is a revolutionary test that can change people’s lives,” Conner said.