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"Firemen -- the best part of the job, to them, is going into buildings," Dana Stockton, an Endicott firefighter and cancer survivor, said. "Cancer's the sneaky part. You don't even think about it, and all the sudden, it's there."
Stockton was 16 years into his career as a professional firefighter when he was blindsided by a cancer diagnosis.
"I had a granulocytic sarcoma," Stockton said. "Which is a precursor to leukemia, with a very low survival rate."
Doctors were confident Stockton's illness was career related. Tests showed he was exposed to benzene -- a cancer-causing chemical often found in plastics and rubbers. Officials say it's one of many chemicals behind what is being dubbed "the silent killer of firefighters."
"Synthetic building materials, hazardous materials -- which untouched, are not a problem," Bill Newland, president of the Retired Professional Firefighter's Association. "The problem comes when they become involved with fire, and burn, and that's when firefighters become exposed to them."
Newland said last year, 56 percent of line-of-duty deaths of firefighters nationwide were the result of occupational cancer.
Stockton beat the odds -- nine months after diagnosis, he was back to battling fires, not cancer. He and others are now taking precautions during and after fires when they are exposed to carcinogens.
"Always wearing our equipment, even after a fire, if we're doing anything on a fire scene," Stockton said. "We've got to be more aware of cleaning our bunker gear, cleaning our equipment."
"Now, there are applications to launder the gear, but it cannot possibly be done after every single incident," Newland said.
Inspired by the loss of his former colleagues, Newland began the Retired Professional Firefighter's Cancer Fund. He said research is the key to saving the lives, of those who save lives.
"When this strikes one of them, it's a family member, that's been diagnosed," Newland said. "Not your blood family, but your work family."