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Firefighters rally behind LOWVELO, fight back against cancer

Isle of Palms firefighters ride in Lowvelo19

Members of the Isle of Palms Professional Firefighters Association peloton enjoy their ride together during LOWVELO last year.

The phrase “giving up” does not exist in Pete Gray’s vocabulary. As a firefighter with the Isle of Palms Fire Department, he puts his life on the line every time he enters a burning building and doesn’t stop until the fire is extinguished. As a member of the Isle of Palms Professional Firefighters Association Local 3967, he constantly pushes for change and is a part of the driving force behind nearly every advance in the fire and emergency services field. And as a two-time participant in MUSC Hollings Cancer Center’s LOWVELO, he encourages his co-workers, friends and members of his community to come together to raise as much as possible for lifesaving cancer research.

Gray, 35, has been fighting fires for over ten years. During his years serving as a volunteer firefighter in New Jersey, he saw how involved the department was with the local community, and what a difference they made through volunteering their time. When he moved to the Charleston area and took a position with the Isle of Palms Fire Department, his sense of volunteerism motivated him to seek out similar opportunities.

“Back in New Jersey, they’re doing something almost every month with some type of local charity, through the schools and soup kitchens. And so, I wanted that here, because I’ve always felt part of, you know, being a firefighter, it’s not just about doing our job, it’s also about being invested in the community,” Gray said.

It’s something researchers at Hollings are so glad to hear as partnerships with the community strengthen the mission of Hollings, the state’s only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center.

Hollings Cancer Center researcher Denis Guttridge, Ph.D., who also loves to participate in LOWVELO, said the support really helps to spread the message of cancer awareness.

“We’re so excited to have the support of our firefighters in our community who are participating in LOWVELO. We appreciate all they do, at risk to themselves, to keep our communities safe. The general public and I’m sure many of our own cancer researchers do not know how much more at risk firefighters are to some specific types of cancers compared to the general population,” he said.

“It is absolutely essential that we at Hollings increase our partnership with our local firefighters to learn more about these risks and importantly how we can develop better treatments for their care. LOWVELO is a perfect mechanism to increase that partnership and we are grateful for their support of cancer research and their efforts to raise cancer awareness.”

Gray said LOWVELO made perfect sense for him and his team as they wanted to focus on a cause that is fiercely important to their group — cancer. The International Association of Firefighters reports cancer is now the leading cause of death among firefighters.

According to two large studies focused on firefighters and cancer completed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, firefighters face a nine percent increase in cancer diagnoses and a 14 percent increase in cancer-related deaths, compared to the general United States population.

There are many reasons firefighters are at a higher risk for certain cancers, one being that many modern buildings contain synthetic and plastic materials, which create more smoke than natural materials. When these synthetic materials burn, they give off carcinogens or cancer-causing agents, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which is a group of more than 100 chemicals. Firefighters may also encounter other known carcinogens such as asbestos and diesel exhaust during a fire, which can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

Although firefighters wear personal protective equipment, chemicals still can penetrate their gear and expose them to toxins.

“We’re losing people on a regular basis, due to cancer in the fire service. I mean, cancer kills more firefighters than the actual job itself — from people dying in accidents during fires. I felt that we should reach out to work with MUSC, specifically the Hollings Cancer Center,” Gray said.

When Gray reached out to Hollings, he learned about LOWVELO, a bike ride fundraiser where 100% of the funds raised by participants goes directly to cancer research. To Gray and his fellow firefighters, it seemed a good fit. During LOWVELO’s inaugural year, the Isle of Palms Professional Firefighters Association peloton consisted of Gray, three other firefighters: Christopher Fassos, Nick Russo and Roger Eagle, and Isle of Palms Mayor Jimmy Carroll. They rode the 25-mile route and raised $4,495 for cancer research. The men also created and sold T-shirts for Breast Cancer Awareness Month last October, which brought in $1,500 that they donated back to Hollings.

Last November, Gray started the LOWVELO 25-mile route on a hope and a prayer, as he didn’t practice riding the bike he brought to the event beforehand. He and his team made a deal to just cruise, have a good time and stay together. He admits they were near the back of the pack, but no one cared. They all finished the race together and had a great time, despite one minor issue along the way.

“That bike seat was like a rock,” he laughed. “I probably spent half the rest of the course actually standing up and pedaling. It was brutal. Our mayor, Jimmy Carrol, who had a beach cruiser with one of those big cushion seats, he probably could’ve gone another 20 miles. So, this year, I’m definitely going to invest in a very comfortable seat.”

Along with being a part of LOWVELO, Gray was also excited about partnering with Hollings for other reasons. He believed the partnership could help him and fellow firefighters across South Carolina in their multi-year battle to get a state law passed to support firefighters that are diagnosed with cancer due to work-related causes. As of June 2020, South Carolina was one of only two states in the nation without such a law.

On Sept. 29, Governor McMaster signed state bill 1071 into law, and established the Firefighter Cancer Health Care Benefit Plan, providing supplemental insurance for firefighters after they are diagnosed with cancer by helping pay for cancer treatments, including: reimbursing $12,000 a year for out of pocket medical expenses, a $20,000 up-front payment, and a $75,000 death benefit.

“This is a giant step forward for firefighters across South Carolina, ensuring they get the coverage and protection they deserve. I’m very proud and grateful for all of the individuals who have put in all the time and effort that it took to get this done,” Gray said.

Giving up on the bill was never an option for Gray, and he applies that same mentality toward LOWVELO and raising money for cancer research. This year, he was the first person on his team to sign up, again for a 25-mile ride, and is hoping to double not only the number of participants in their peloton from last year, but also the amount of funds they raise for Hollings. While he doesn’t claim to be a “hard-core” bike rider, he is 100% committed to the cause.

“There isn’t a person I know that hasn’t been affected by cancer, some way somehow, whether it was a family member or a neighbor, someone they work with, everyone knows someone who has either had or has died from cancer. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m staying involved with LOWVELO, because it’s something that hits home for all of us, and especially for us firefighters,” Gray said.

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