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Feb 24, 2022, 15:10 PM by OnCenter
Exposure to pathogens and toxins leaves firefighters at heightened risk for cancer. An annual firefighter physical flagged what turned out to be colon cancer in Lompoc Fire Captain Christopher Martinez. He’s now a survivor, and passionate advocate for the exams.

Christopher Martinez and firefighters

The physical demands firefighters face on the job are extreme, impacting their safety and their health. Exposure to pathogens and toxic elements within an already stressful work setting leaves firefighters at heightened risk for cancer and cardiovascular problems. A National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study completed in 2020 looked at 30,000 career firefighters over a 50-year period and discovered a 9% increase in all cancer diagnoses and a 14% increase in all cancer-related deaths. The rising cases of cancer in younger firefighters could be linked to environmental exposures, or to more frequent cancer screenings. Lompoc Fire Captain Christopher Martinez is a passionate advocate for annual firefighter physicals, since the 2019 exam required by his own department wound up flagging stage II colon cancer. The 44 year-old husband and father was the picture of health, a nonsmoker and healthy eater with a rigorous daily exercise regimen and no family history of cancer. When results from his department exam showed he was anemic, Christopher visited his primary care physician David Phreaner, MD. The bloodwork abnormality was puzzling to them both since the same tests appeared completely normal eight months earlier. The only symptom Christopher had at that time was minor fatigue, which as a hardworking firefighter, seemed like just a regular part of the job. Not long after their appointment when Christopher noticed a bloody stool, Dr. Phreaner referred him to gastroenterologist Vincent DeRosa, MD who performed a combined endoscopy and colonoscopy. Those tests and a subsequent biopsy confirmed Christopher’s colon cancer diagnosis.

Surgical oncologist W. Charles Conway, MD, FACS removed Christopher’s tumor and said he was lucky to have found the fast-growing malignancy before any more symptoms had begun to appear. Dr. Conway’s warm, caring manner and attention to detail comforted Christopher, his wife, Xochitl and sister, Laura, both nurses at Cottage Hospital. “He listened to all of us. It was a big weight off my shoulders,” says Christopher. Post-surgery, Dr. Conway referred the family to RidleyTree Cancer Center, where they selected oncologist and hematologist Mukul Gupta, MD to guide them through treatment. They all appreciated Dr. Gupta’s immense time investment to help them understand the medical research and information surrounding the diagnosis. “I felt like he gave me the opportunity to feel empowered in the decision-making process,” shares Christopher. When chemotherapy began, Christopher and Dr. Gupta coordinated to try and find the best ways for his strenuous, pre-dawn workouts to continue. Christopher pushed through his daily run and hundreds of push-ups despite fatigue and nausea. “I was determined to be stronger from this,” he recalls. A big motivator was his daughter, Luisa, eight years-old at the time. Having lost his mother as a third grader, Christopher longed to protect his child from any fear or worry caused by his illness. Oncology social worker April Calderon, MSW met with Luisa to help her manage the stress of having a parent with cancer. “Sometimes, kids take a lot of that brunt. Ridley-Tree supported that aspect, so I could focus on recovery,” explains Christopher. His patient navigator Sam Howland, MS commanded care logistics, so he could reap all the benefits of a multi-disciplinary center where specialist teams rally around patients to provide support. Oncology nutrition dietitian Sarah Washburn, MS, RDN, CSO, personalized a diet for Christopher that would provide adequate nutrition, while limiting any side effects from the chemotherapy. Special attention from Nurse Practitioner Erica Koeppen, DNP and Medical Assistants Elizabeth Cuevas and Kathy Judy was the icing on the cake, and made Christopher feel right at home during his visits.

The transition into remission felt a little rocky for Christopher, who was boosted mentally knowing he was cancer-free, but frustrated that his stamina and mental sharpness was taking time to return. “When you hear about people with cancer who are in remission, you think they are fine, they beat it, they don’t need support,” he admits. “I struggled, but I learned this is typical.” Dr. Gupta encouraged Christopher to be patient since his body might need many months to be fully-restored. Meantime, he channeled his energies into advocacy for annual firefighter physicals for all area fire departments. Christopher built a cancer awareness curriculum for firefighters, used by California’s Office of the State Fire Marshal, where he is one of only a handful of certified behavioral health and cancer awareness instructors. He regularly presents lectures for Allan Hancock College’s Fire Academy, and he gave a 2021 community presentation at an event co-hosted by Ridley-Tree and Cottage Health where he inspired the audience of Spanish speakers to stay current with their annual medical exams and cancer screening tests. With cancer, heart disease, lung disease and infectious disease among the leading causes of death for firefighters, there is no time to waste, according to Christopher. “The fight doesn’t just end, it continues. I want to address this so we can support each other.”


Photo caption: Fire Captain Christopher Martinez (center) with Engineer Evan Nesby and Firefighter Richard West

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