Tony Stefani, a San Francisco native and retired Fire Department captain, founded the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation in 2006 after surviving his own battle with the disease. The 60-year-old shares his thoughts on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and his mission of reducing firefighter exposure to cancer-causing toxins.
How big is the concern of firefighters being exposed to toxins before and after combating a blaze?
It’s a major concern in the entire firefighting industry right now, and that’s the rates of cancer that we’re finding amongst retired and active firefighters. It’s a three-pronged approach by our foundation: Prevention, early detection and support once diagnosed with the disease. And as far as I know, we’re the only foundation that in the U.S. that is ... screening firefighters both active and retired for various forms.
Can you expound on how your foundation aids firefighters who have contracted cancer?
The third aspect of our foundation is helping firefighters once they are diagnosed with cancer to go through the process of the presumptive law, where firefighters are supposed to be covered when they contract the disease. ... In San Francisco, we’re having a problem with that. We have some claims adjusters who totally understand the presumptive law when it comes to cancer and firefighters, and we have claims adjusters who don’t understand or know how to interpret the presumptive law. Some claims are handled well, and some not so well.
Firefighters will be remembered forever for their role in 9/11. Now that the 10th anniversary is coming up, how will you commemorate that tragic event?
We’ll be at St. Monica’s Church in San Francisco, where both police and firefighters will participate in the 10th anniversary memorial mass ... and I’m sure the place will be packed. [New York firefighters] had the ultimate situation that day when they were faced with both of those buildings. They did what I’m sure any firefighter would have done. You go inside and do your best to get up to the fire floor to start your work. It was a very tragic day.
What’s the status on the washing machines the foundation purchased that are meant to cleanse firefighting equipment of carcinogens?
We purchased five washer extractors to clean the turnout equipment that firefighters wear when they work in a fire. If these coats aren’t cleaned after a working fire, firefighters continuously expose themselves to the same chemicals. But because of the budget constraints in San Francisco, the administration is sort of between a rock and a hard place when it comes to getting them situated in firehouses. We paid almost $8,000 per unit.
You yourself are a cancer survivor. Can you tell us about your diagnosis and treatment?
I was actually recovering from cancer during 9/11. But I contracted cancer when I was a captain at Rescue 1 in San Francisco. I was 49 years old at the time and I was in excellent shape ... or so I thought. One day after a morning run, I noticed blood in my urine and went to the doctors. Within a two-week period I was diagnosed with transitional cell carcinoma. ... It’s a rare form of cancer that’s normally found in one in 100,000 people. And it’s normally found in people that work in the chemical industry.
How did you link this cancer diagnosis to firefighting?
I saw my doctor, and he asked me what my profession was. He sort of smiled at me and asked if I had had many exposures. I said yes. He was fairly confident this was the reason why I had contracted this disease.