Largo firefighters and cancer survivors Robert DiMarco, left, and Curtis McClendon are the beneficiaries of the fundraiser, organized to help them with medical expenses.
Photo by JULIANA A. TORRES
Largo firefighter Curtis McClendon pitches for his team, the Ballbarians during the kickball tournament Aug. 24, organized as a fundraiser to help him and teammate Robert DiMarco, pictured fielding second base at right, with medical bills from their respective battles against cancer.
LARGO – Robert DiMarco, Curtis McClendon and their team of fellow firefighters, the Ballbarians, weren’t the best kickball players in the tournament at Whitesell Softball Complex Aug. 24.
“We got crushed the first game,” DiMarco said in an exaggerated lament. “They didn’t even have any sympathy for the two guys with cancer. It was like 10 to nothing.”
Their second and final game, this time in the losers’ bracket, also ended in a shutout. But McClendon, 42, and DiMarco, 36, who serve the city of Largo on the same shift together, will still walk away with almost $10,000 split between them. Both have battled cancer this year, and the Largo firefighter union, Local 2427, organized the tournament to help them pay for medical bills.
Firefighter Macho Liberti, secretary and treasurer for the union, said he and other organizers were still collecting funds and paying out bills associated with the fundraiser. But he knew the tournament brought in about $9,330, and the group already had about $500 in donated funds.
“I think when it’s all said and done, we’re going to be close to $10,000,” he said.
The successful fundraiser was one that the union plans on repeating next year, he said. Unfortunately, McClendon’s and DiMarco’s separate cancer diagnoses were less than coincidental.
“We as firefighters have an increased risk over normal workers,” Liberti said. “We’ll keep this as an annual event to benefit other possible firefighters that may come down with cancer, not just in Largo.”
In fact, Liberti said the union was discussing starting a nonprofit organization and an ongoing benevolent fund to that end. Liberti is passionate about addressing the issue. He teaches a class on the risk of cancer based off one put together by the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, a national organization.
“I hope by educating more and more firefighters about the increased risk we have of developing cancer, we will turn the tide on some of these statistics,” Liberti explained.
According to a report published this month by the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, cancer is the most dangerous and unrecognized threat to the health of firefighters. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has been working on a multi-year study to determine the risks of cancer, using data from more than 30,000 firefighters from San Francisco, Philadelphia and Chicago. The results of the study are expected to be completed this year.
Smaller scale studies already have reported that firefighters are 2.2 times more likely to develop testicular cancer and 1.5 times more likely to develop Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, according to the support network’s report “Taking Action Against Cancer in the Fire Service.”
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma was DiMarco’s diagnosis on Feb. 6. The paramedic said he had been experiencing chest pains at night and had higher blood pressure for months. He knew, from hooking himself up to a heart monitor at the station, that he didn’t have a heart problem. Initially, his doctor put him on antibiotics, saying his condition was the result of bronchitis.
“Nothing went away; it just kept getting worse and worse,” DiMarco said.
When a lump formed in his neck, DiMarco had a biopsy that proved he had cancer. Two days later, he began the first of six rounds of chemotherapy. Through the process, he gained 40 pounds, mostly due to the high dose of steroids he was on. Initially, his doctors told him radiation would follow. But his CAT scan came back so clean that it was canceled.
“So I got very lucky,” he said. “There was (only) a very short time frame that I looked sick.”
Only a month before DiMarco’s diagnosis, McClendon discovered that he had renal cell carcinoma, a common kidney cancer. What turned out to be a tumor showed up in a yearly examination all Largo firefighters undergo during the previous summer. McClendon initially thought nothing of it, but followed up with his doctor.
By January, a new test showed that the mass had quadrupled in size, and he had surgery to remove the cancerous tumor. Doctors are still keeping an eye on another growth on his right side, but for now, he’s in the clear.
Out-of-pocket medical expenses have cost DiMarco about $7,000 and McClendon $4,000. Both firefighters also had to give up income from their second jobs while undergoing treatment: DiMarco halted teaching paramedic classes at Keiser University, and McClendon put his landscaping business on hold.
But both have had each other’s support. The two have worked in shift C at Station 41 for more than three years.
“We’ve become very, very close over the past year, sharing a lot of the same emotions and mental lapses and stresses,” McClendon said. “It’s really been good to have him as a companion to talk to.”
Liberti said that the union was committed to helping firefighters, specifically in their cancer battles, because the state doesn’t have presumptive disability laws for firefighters diagnosed with cancer. Currently, Florida statutes outline that tuberculosis, heart disease, or hypertension resulting in disability for law enforcement or firefighters is presumed to be a result of their line of duty. Select states extend that presumption to specific types of cancer, but Florida has no such protection.
Chemicals released during fires, especially when synthetic materials are burning, can be absorbed or inhaled by firefighters and then cause cancer, Liberti said. The problem is “gradual exposures over the life of the career that leads to us being more likely to develop cancer,” he explained.
“Typically, we try to police ourselves,” he said. “Any time there is visible smoke, we have to have respirators on … Now we don’t take our masks off until we use our air monitors to see that at least the CO levels are down.”
Given the two most recent instances, Liberti said he would work harder to bring the cancer awareness classes to his fellow firefighters.
The kickball tournament included not only from Largo firefighters, but representatives from several other Tampa Bay fire and police agencies. DiMarco said he couldn’t believe how many players, at $250 per team, showed up to support him.
“It’s overwhelming at times – all the love and the support that they get. It’s nice,” said his wife, Stephanie.
The community can continue to donate to a joint fund for McClendon and DiMarco at any BB&T Bank. For more about the Largo Professional Firefighters, visit www.iaff2427.org.