Retired firefighter battling cancer and fighting for workers' compensation

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A St. Paul firefighter is in the fight of his life.

Cancer forced him to retire after nearly two decades of fighting fires.

Now, he is battling with his former employer to help cover his medical bills.

Steve Shapira decided he wanted to be a firefighter when he was in college.

"I didn't see myself behind a desk and I had a couple of friends who got into firefighting and after I found out what it was, it fit the things I like to do," Shapira said.

For 17 years, he did just that until he started having stomach pains four years ago.

"I had been feeling ill for about three or four months. Had trouble eating," Shapira said.

Even though Shapira doesn't smoke and his family doesn't have a history of cancer, he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the blood, that was causing his lymph nodes to swell up.

"When you hear you have cancer, it still hits you like a ton of bricks. It's completely different than just thinking it in your mind. Having an oncologist and internist tell you you have cancer, it stops you dead in your tracks literally," Shapira said.

For Shapira, cancer meant chemo every three weeks, for the first six months, and retiring from the department he'd dedicated his life to. He believes he got sick from fighting fires.

"The smoke now is basically a toxic soup. It's not like 50 years ago when it was all natural materials. Cotton. Wood. It's plastics, synthetics products and when we absorb these we are getting them into our system at huge rates," Shapira said.

A recent study of nearly 30,000 firefighters in three major cities found that 68 percent of them will get cancer compared to just 22 percent of the general population.

Firefighting advocates believe flame retardant chemicals and plastic products create carcinogens when they burn which are then absorbed through the skin.

"For every five degrees your temperature raises. Your skin absorption rate increases by 400 percent, so we are absorbing these toxins into our skin," Chris Parsons of the Minnesota Professional Firefighters Association said. "You have firefighters in their forties coming down with prostate cancer. Prostate cancer is an old man's disease. 40-year-olds shouldn't be coming down with these types of diseases."

Minnesota is one of 33 states with cancer presumptive laws, which assume firefighters with certain cancers got them on the job.

It's supposed to make it easier for them to get health and disability benefits.

While Shapira's pension plan recognized his cancer as an occupational disease, when he applied for workers' compensation with the city of St. Paul to cover his medical bills, his claim was denied.

"I hate to see anyone go through cancer, but let alone people who've dedicated their lives to serving the public. It seems like we should be treated better than this," Shapira said.

Now, the 49-year-old spends his time training firefighters to make healthier choices and push for changes like better equipment to wash the soot, that many consider a badge of honor, off their gear.

Even though his days fighting fires are over, Shapira says it’s a shame his battle with the city he served for so long is just beginning.

"It just doesn't seem right. Let's just concentrate on being healthy and trying to get well and trying to beat this thing because not everyone does beat it," Shapira said.

We contacted the city of St. Paul for our story, but a spokesperson said they couldn't comment on Shapira's claim.

Shapira is appealing the city's denial.