Clinton Township firefighters Brandon Murphy, Mike Olszewski and Kyle McCuen do a breathing test to detect early signs of cancer July 10 at Fire Station No. 5. The department is working with a Canadian company that uses dogs to sniff breath samples for detection of early signs of cancer.

Clinton Township firefighters Brandon Murphy, Mike Olszewski and Kyle McCuen do a breathing test to detect early signs of cancer July 10 at Fire Station No. 5. The department is working with a Canadian company that uses dogs to sniff breath samples for detection of early signs of cancer.

Photo by Erin Sanchez


CTFD enlists aid of cancer-sniffing dogs

By: Nick Mordowanec | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published July 15, 2019

 Clinton Township Fire Chief Tim Duncan holds the test that has been administered to the majority of the department’s firefighters.

Clinton Township Fire Chief Tim Duncan holds the test that has been administered to the majority of the department’s firefighters.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

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CLINTON TOWNSHIP — The mental and physical anguish of being a firefighter can extend far beyond the day-to-day routine.

Whether they attend to large building blazes or conduct medical checks in what can be unsterile environments, these first responders continually put themselves at risk of contracting what could be a multitude of diseases.

That is why the Clinton Township Fire Department recently aligned with a Canadian detection screening service called CancerDogs. Based out of Quebec and started back in 2010, the service uses specially-trained dogs to detect the odor of all types of cancer present in a person’s exhaled breath.

Screening trials commenced in 2011. Four trained dogs are able to detect a general cancer odor composed of metabolic waste products. The dogs are trained via a library of breath samples collected from people diagnosed with cancer, but not yet treated. Abnormal or precancerous cells are also able to be detected.

Three separate CTFD platoons convened between July 8 and 10 to take the test, with about 64 firefighters of a possible 77 opting to do the screening.

The process itself is simple: A surgical mask is worn by the firefighter for 10 minutes before being placed into an odor-proof foil bag, which is then sent to CancerDogs — along with a contact form, a medical waiver and a medical history questionnaire.

If cancer samples are detected, individuals are contacted and encouraged to seek further testing by way of personal physicians. CancerDogs recommends that all firefighters visit a dermatologist to rule out common non-melanoma skin cancers and precancers.

About 125 fire departments in the U.S. and Canada have participated in this particular detection screening, including the Chicago Fire Department. About 700 of that department’s firefighters were screened in 2016, with cancer or pre-cancer detected in 129 of them.

CancerDogs states that its service is more than 95% accurate, meaning that for every 20 cases of cancer found, only about one could be missed. Specificity is in the 60-70% range, so 30-40% could realistically be false positives — possibly triggered by colorectal polyps or other causes.

Based on data from numerous departments, 20-25% of those tested will be detected, while 60-70% of those individuals will be confirmed to have cancer — a rate of about 12 to 17 persons per every 100 individuals.

 

Small cost to save lives
Clinton Township Fire Chief Tim Duncan said this is the first time the department has ever conducted cancer testing in this particular manner.

He found out about the service a couple months ago after coming across an article on the company and how they operate. At $30 per test, and being already budgeted within the department, it was essentially a “no brainer.”

The response from the department was one of the most “overwhelming” he could ever recall.

Duncan told a group of about 12 to 15 firefighters July 10 at Station No. 5, on Elizabeth Road, that firefighters are 9% more likely to develop cancer when compared to the general population. They are also 14% more likely to die from cancer than the general population.

Cancers that will affect firefighters more often include testicular cancer, multiple myeloma, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, skin cancer, malignant melanoma, brain cancer, prostate cancer, colon cancer and leukemia.

“Basically, your outfit becomes a chimney,” Duncan said to the firefighters who were donned in surgical masks. “It starts going up your pant legs, it’s going to get in different areas. Any crevice that is exposed, obviously you’re going to get exposed to this stuff.”

Even the chief admitted he was “kind of freaked out” about receiving his own results, but he said he would rather know than the alternative.

“Even one detection that catches this early is going to pay big dividends, to the township and our department, and the person and their families,” he said.

 

‘It’s the responsible thing to do’
Duncan recalled how two former township firefighters died from esophageal cancer after he started his career nearly two decades ago.

“To see that process, there’s just no way we want to deal with that type of thing again,” he said. “It was a terrible time for us, watching them get sick and pass away. And obviously, for their families, (it was) devastating.”

Clinton Township EMS Chief John Gallagher has been a firefighter since 2001 and part of the Clinton Township Fire Department since 2004.

He said the vetted process is not a one-off mentality, but rather a way to identify internal damage before it spreads. He believes it can help lead to positive outcomes.

“Kudos to the chief. I think it’s very forward thinking,” Gallagher said. “I think it’s a cost effective way of getting pre-cancer screenings done, and hopefully finding those that may be suffering from that right now in a very early stage where they can get care and stop the process.”

He, along with all other fire administrators, took the test. Anxiety does exist, Gallagher admits, but he acknowledged that’s part of the inherent risk of pursuing a career as a firefighter in the first place.

“Having this test is certainly a little bit nerve-wracking,” he said. “I think it’s the responsible thing to do. We owe it to ourselves, personally, as well as our families. And the possibility of catching the disease process early I think is well worth the painstaking wait for the results to come back.”

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