CHARLOTTE, N.C. – They are the first responders — the guys who run into a burning home — to save us.
And yet, firefighters are facing a very real threat. They’re dying of cancer at an alarming rate.
Over the last three-and-a-half years, 41 Charlotte firefighters have battled cancer. More than half of the cases are skin cancer. That’s a battle another area firefighter knows all too well. His dad, also a firefighter, died from it, and now he’s working to save others from the same fate.
James Robinson became a volunteer firefighter when he was just 18. It was inevitable, he says.
“I grew up at a firehouse,” Robinson explained. “My father had been in fire service since his 18th birthday.”
His father Tom was a career firefighter in Burke County.
“He just responded to help people, it’s who he was,” Robinson said of his father.
But a few years ago, a tiny bump on the bottom of his foot started to hurt.
“He left it for a full year and it continued to grow,” he said. “Just because he wanted to work. He knew that my mom was dependent on him.”
He didn’t want to make time to deal with it. Turns out, it was melanoma. James said he started researching his dad’s diagnosis and was shocked by an article he came across.
“It said a numerous amount of firefighters are developing melanoma on the bottom of their feet,” Robinson said.
As it turns out, cancer is the number one killer among firefighters. Across the nation, there were 80 firefighter deaths from cancer last year.
“In my department right now, I know of at least five that were cancer related,” said Robinson. “We have three that passed away from cancer or complications and two living in the battle right now.”
After his father’s death, James, who remains a firefighter, decided he had to do something.
“For me, it’s an opportunity for my father’s legacy to go on,” said James.
He worked with Carolinas Medical Center to create a course educating firefighters about the dangers, like staying in their gear too long after being covered in dangerous chemicals. The class is called “Code T.O.M.,” which stands for “taking on melanoma,” and named for his dad.
In just four months, more than 1,000 firefighters in the Charlotte area have taken the class. James is hoping maybe he’s saved other families from the heartbreak his family is facing.
“I lost my father at a point where he had young grandchildren,” James lamented. “I loved to watch him with a Frisbee, that was his joy.”
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