MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - The costs of treating cancer can reach into the hundreds of thousands. Now imagine it's your job that gave you the cancer in the first place. Firefighters are not insured against the cancers they are allegedly contracting, and it has sparked quite the debate in South Carolina.
To charge head on into a burning building takes guts. Saving homes and lives is what they sign up for, but saving themselves from cancer -- is not. Research links the firefighting profession to a higher risk of more aggressive diseases.
The debate that is raging from Myrtle Beach to Columbia involves why these life savers are not getting the compensation for health risks that decades of research show are the result of fighting fires.
"It's dangerous. I mean, there's nothing you can do about it," says Lt. Jeremy Albornoz, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma after ten years with Myrtle Beach Fire Rescue.
Jeremy's motivation to beat cancer stood by his side every day: his wife and two kids. But if it comes back, and there's a high probability it will, family may not be enough.
"For me, the biggest fear is that I can retire at 55," Lt. Albornoz says. "So if it comes back after I'm not working anymore, that's – well, I'm going to lose everything then. So, that's scary. Because it's probably going to come back."
Cancer is expensive. For Jeremy, fighting last time totaled $174,000. So, should the same cities that pay them for protection cover them when they get sick?
"Who's going to want to do a job when they're not protected? That's a long-term question that we haven't answered yet," says Myrtle Beach Fire Rescue Chief Alvin Payne.
Right now, a bill is being drafted and is trying to gain traction among lawmakers in Columbia.
It would offer help covering the costs of job-related cancer treatment for fire fighters.
That might sound like a simple solution.
"I believe if indeed exposure has resulted in cancer, the approximate cause of cancer, then there should be coverage," says State Representative Alan Clemmons. "There should be worker's compensation coverage for that injured employee, in that case the firefighter. The cancer at that point becomes the injury. I think the struggle is proving that the contact happened in the place of employment, or that there was contact at all."
Thirty-eight states have passed some form of a bill like this. South Carolina is not one of them.
"I never want to see a bill like in some states where you have to prove you have cancer from your job," Chief Payne says. "What good is that? I mean, that's less than what we have now. Just to say you have a bill to protect the firefighters, that doesn't really protect them. You really don't have anything."
But to get something passed, there must be proof - proof they got cancer from their job, and proof they did everything humanly possible to prevent it.
"We're taking care of the cleaning, the treatment, the better physical fitness, the eating better, everything on our aspect of reducing cancer," explains Seth Holzopfel, President of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2345. "But now we're going to need some help on the back end."
Every local fire fighter is required to wear their breathing mask in a fire until given the all clear.
But each department enforces different levels of lifestyle guidelines, health requirements, and safety protocols.
Doctors need specifics to connect cancer to the job. Now departments are encouraging leaders to document each fire they go to, which firefighters were in the flames, for how long, and what chemicals they were exposed to. That way, when the doctor says "cancer", they can hand them a stack of proof.
"The compelling side of it is, well, thank God for our firefighters and our first responders," Rep. Clemmons says. "Where would we be in society without them? Living in fear every day. If they are injured in the workplace, as an American, as a citizen, as a Myrtle Beach resident and citizen, I want my Myrtle Beach firefighters... I want him to be made whole, I want him to have health insurance coverage, because of any injury he incurs protecting me. And if he gets sick, and it's a fatal sickness, then his family should be appropriately compensated for their loss. Again, the struggle comes with how to tie the cause to the injury."
A team of doctors, fire officials, and workman's comp attorneys – including one senator – are working on a bill right now. It would cover full-time and volunteer firefighters currently employed and for years after they retire.
But they want to make sure any legislation allows exemptions for all types of cancers, and that even if there's a question of how it was contracted, there is no question of coverage under workman's comp.
"We want to make sure that we cross our T's and dot our I's and so we know we're doing what's in the best interest of everyone," Chief Payne says. "And so that's going to be the difficult part."
Still, it will likely be the second year of the current two-year session before this issue even gets a hearing.
"We're running into burning buildings to protect you. In the back of our mind we don't want to have that we're going to be left out when we come down with cancer from protecting you," Holzopfel says. "But we'll still protect you! That's not the thing. But we need to be taken care of on the back end."
Firefighters like Jeremy are asking for nothing but the peace of mind, knowing they and their families would be protected after they risked it all to protect you.
"If it comes back, if I last, if it comes back in 15 years, it'd probably be easier for me to come back earlier because then my insurance might cover it," Lt. Albornoz says with a nervous laugh. "After that, then I don't know what's going to happen."
Representative Allen Clemmons says he does expect the debate over a bill to happen.
As to when, how comprehensive it might be, or whether it can become law? That is anyone's guess.