Metro firefighter families fighting for benefits in cases of cancer

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- There’s no doubt firefighters have a risky job. But studies now increasingly find cancer is one of the biggest threats they face. There’s a proposed new law in Missouri that could help the families of those firefighters who succumb to the devastating disease.

Heather Winship’s bookcase is filled with reminders of her husband, Rick. Rick spent 26 years as an Independence firefighter.

“For him, it was always safety first. Safety, you know, in making sure he was OK, his guys were OK, the people he was helping were OK,” Winship said.

That’s why, even with the dangers of a firefighting job, Winship never really worried about Rick coming home each night. But she never realized that a hidden danger may have slowly been killing him.

“I never knew about cancer in the fire service. I knew the fire hazards and risks being on the road with people who might not be paying attention. But he never talked about it. So that was that one thing he kind of sheltered me from,” said Winship.

It was in January 2015, Rick first complained of a sharp pain in his stomach. He wrote it off when the pain went away. But when the same pain returned a few weeks later, he went to the doctor. Tests revealed it was cancer.

“He had a spot here on his liver. He had a spot on his throat. And then one a size of a pea in his brain,” said Winship.

Radiation followed. Even with stage four cancer, he kept working at the fire house. But within three months, Rick was rushed to the hospital. When his boss came to visit, there was a final glimpse into his lifelong dedication to the job.

“He looked at him and said 'I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to work today, Chief,'” Winship said.

Days later, Rick Winship died.

“It’s like a big smack in the face,” said Winship.

But the Winship family’s fight was just beginning. Under current Missouri law, families of firefighters killed in the line of duty are virtually guaranteed benefits. But it is nearly impossibly for firefighter families to be awarded worker’s compensation survivor benefits if cancer is the cause of death.

“My husband, he didn’t die in a fire. He died in a hospital bed from all the years of chemicals he was exposed to. It isn’t fair to the families they leave behind,” said Winship.

A new bill, working its way through the Missouri statehouse, would change that. The proposed bill, which has the support of Gov. Eric Greitens, would presume cancer is job-related when firefighters are diagnosed. Similar cancer presumption laws are already on the books in more than 30 other states.

“It would mean a lot because I know my husband didn’t want me to go through this,” Winship said.

While the law likely wouldn’t help her family, Winship believes it should be a protection for future firefighter families who get a cancer diagnosis, as a thank you for their dedication to protect all of us.

Many area fire departments are stepping up efforts to lower the risk of firefighter cancer.

Last summer, Fox 4 told you about a mission by a Kansas City firefighter’s wife. She’s getting close to raising enough money to purchase an extractor. Those machines help strip potential cancer-causing chemicals from firefighter bunker gear.

Currently, 21 KCFD station houses do not have those machines.

If you’d like to donate to the effort to purchase more extractors, you can do so here.

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