Jamie Schaffran, 41, of Brandon, died two years ago after a difficult six-month battle with lung cancer. He was not a smoker.
Kurt Strand, 46, of Alexandria, died less than a year ago after a hard fought battle with colon and liver cancer.
Both men had at least one thing in common — they were both firefighters.
Schaffran belonged to the Brandon Fire Department and Strand was a member of the Forada Fire Department.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar spoke with Cheryl Schaffran and Becky Strand, the widows of the two firefighters, Wednesday afternoon at the Alexandria Fire Department.
Klobuchar was in Alexandria to discuss her bipartisan bill to establish a national cancer registry for firefighters with members of the Alexandria Fire Department, including Fire Chief Jeff Karrow, and others, including Mayor Sara Carlson, Police Chief Rick Wyffels, City Councilmen Todd Jensen and State Fire Marshal Bruce West.
Klobuchar-backed legislation would establish a nationwide registry to monitor and track the relationship between firefighters' exposure to fumes and toxins and their cancer diagnoses. Research has indicated a strong connection between firefighting and an increased risk for several major cancers.
After listening to the stories from the two widows, along with a story of being a cancer survivor from former Alexandria Fire Marshal Dennis Stark, Klobuchar said, "There's a reason why I am here. By establishing the registry, we can try and get to the bottom of this. We've seen and heard stories like this all over the state."
Data collected from the registry would be used to inform the diagnoses and treatment of firefighters, as well as prevention strategies critical to minimizing the risk of cancer among firefighters.
"When you see the numbers, you believe there's something going on," said Klobuchar, adding that she learned that a fire department in Albert Lea had three of its 16 members diagnosed with some form of cancer.
Karrow mentioned that in the last two and a half years, the department has had five funerals of firefighters in their 40s who have died from cancer and that six of the last seven firefighters who retired from the Alexandria Fire Department died after battling some type of cancer.
"Why is this happening?" asked Klobuchar. "Is there something in the building materials? Is there different gear for firefighters? What about early testing? We need to get the facts and the volunteer registry can do that."
Becky Strand said testing would be great.
"Kurt left behind his three daughters," Strand said. "But he loved being a firefighter. He loved being with people. Even with his cancer treatments, he continued with the department as long as he could. Anything that can be done to help would be great."
Cheryl Schaffran said her husband was healthy, loved to run and never smoked, but ended up with lung cancer anyway.
"He was in it (being a firefighter) wholeheartedly," Schaffran said. "It was his life. He was dedicated to it."
She also said he left behind three beautiful children.
State Fire Marshal West said being a firefighter today is different than when he first started back in 1978. He said homes being built today are totally different and that the carcinogens that hang on firefighting gear is different because of different materials such as plastics.
He stressed the importance of cleaning gear after each use and said departments are getting better at educating their firefighters. Some fire departments now use washing machines to extract the residue left behind after fighting a fire. However, many departments don't have those extractor washing machines.
"There is a big difference in just washing and using an extractor," said West. "Top load washers don't cut it anymore."
Alexandria firefighter Bill Thoennes also stressed the importance of washing gear thoroughly and pointed out that cancer is rampant not only here in Minnesota, but throughout the country.
Thoennes said, "What can we do? How can we help? This is definitely an issue."
Klobuchar said that the registry can help monitor cancer cases and perhaps help direct the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Maybe certain parts of the state have more incidents. Having all that data would be helpful, she said.
"To think our CDC doesn't have anything like this is disturbing," the senator said. "Our hope is that it (the registry) can then help with funding and education."
The International Association of Firefighters estimates that roughly 60 percent of career firefighters will die from cancer. Firefighters are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than the general public. And by the age 60, twice as many firefighters die from cancer than heart attacks, the biggest killer among most Americans.