By Caitlin Clarkson Pereira
Hartford Courant |
PUBLISHED: May 5, 2023 at 6:15 a.m. | UPDATED: May 5, 2023 at 5:29 p.m.
Profiles of Courage and Cancer
Lt. Jeff Sneller, Manchester Fire Department
In 2000, Lt. Jeff Sneller was hired to be a firefighter/paramedic for the city of Manchester. He had been a volunteer since 1993 in Kent, but now, as the sole provider for his family, he was ecstatic to be getting paid for the work he loved.
As of today, Sneller has dedicated 30 years of his life to what many in the business refer to as the “greatest job in the world.”
Yet over those 30 years, Sneller has been diagnosed with three different forms of cancer, at different times. According to IARC, a branch of the World Health Organization, this isn’t a coincidence. Last July, IARC reclassified the profession of firefighting as a Group 1 carcinogen, the highest classification possible. This puts firefighting in the same group as benzene and tobacco.
“When I became a firefighter, I knew I signed up to go into burning buildings, and up on the highway for accidents in crazy weather, but to sign up for cancer, I never thought of that. My wife and kids hadn’t thought of it either,” Sneller said.
Sneller’s first cancer diagnosis came in 2005. Even as a healthy, fit male in his 30s, with no family history of cancer, he suddenly started having pain and swelling in one testicle. When he went to see a doctor, he was immediately sent over to a urologist, and was diagnosed with testicular cancer that very same day.
According to research, testicular cancer happens to be more than twice as prevalent in firefighters than in the general public, and firefighters are three times as likely to die from it.
If his injury at work had been caused by a fall or burns, it would have been classified as a job-related injury, and his paid time off and job security would never have been in question. But Connecticut is one of only two states without some form of cancer presumption for firefighters, meaning it was up to Sneller to do the math on how long he could be out of work.
“I had a wife and two kids at home. I didn’t know if I had enough sick time to carry me through,” he said.
And he didn’t.
While being out of work for six months as he was undergoing surgery and chemotherapy, Sneller exhausted all of this sick time and paid time off. “The only reason I kept getting paid was because guys covered my shifts for me. They saved my job, and my family.”
His next two cancer diagnoses came in 2011, and again in 2016. His third cancer was skin cancer. “I didn’t go in the sun much, and when I do, I wear a T-shirt. Yet the cancer was on my shoulder blade, right where the straps of the airpack sit.” Skin cancer is also more common in firefighters.
“When I got the call about my third diagnosis, I was just like, ‘You have got to be kidding me.’ Now, I am just praying that my body is all done with cancer diagnoses, however at this point if you were to play the odds, I most likely will have cancer again. Hopefully I will be lucky enough to beat it.”
Today, in addition to being an officer in his fire department, Sneller finds purpose in being a mentor through the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, a non-profit organization created to support firefighters and their families when occupational cancer strikes.
“Being a mentor with the network has been incredible,” he said. “You are teamed up with someone who has the same cancer you did. It’s really healthy for both parties, because we need to be able to talk about it.”
His final thought: “We do a better job today of educating about wearing an air pack in smoke and cleaning dirty gear, but do we educate the firefighter’s families about the dangers? Do they know if they are able to handle the risk, and the impact if someone gets sick?”
Unfortunately, until cancer presumption coverage is passed in Connecticut, this is a question all firefighters and their loved ones are left asking themselves.
This is the first in a series of columns by Caitlin Clarkson Pereira, a Fairfield firefighter, called, “Profiles of Courage and Cancer,” created to highlight the personal impact occupational cancer has had on firefighters and their families across Connecticut. Please refer to state Senate Bill 937 to learn more about the legislation regarding this issue.