Local firefighter battles fires and cancer

Friday, July 12, 2019
News 12 at 11 o'clock

Photo Credit: Chris Garcia

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- Cancer is the leading cause of death for firefighters. It can drown them in medical bills and force them into medical retirement.

At the age of 38 and after only being a firefighter for 5 years, Chris Garcia's life changed.

"It went from being a completely healthy young man, running 6 miles a day and working 140 hours plus a week. Life changed pretty quick," said Lt. Chris Garcia, a member of the Augusta Firefighter Association.

He has Multiple Melanoma. It's an incurable cancer that most people get it in their 60s.

"I think it's directly related to our work," Garcia said.

Garcia works full-time. Plus, he is on chemotherapy every day. He also has six kids, and he's chosen not to tell the youngest ones about the cancer.

"We just told 'em I'm sick. It's hard," Garcia said.

For firefighters, cancer is the unseen enemy. A national study revealed on average that firefighters lose almost 22 years off of their lives.

It’s tough to hear for long-time firefighter Capt. Michael Tomaszewski, the president of the Augusta Firefighters Association.

"We know this kind of information. We know that we're giving up years of, of meaningful life. And we still go to work," said Tomaszewski with tears in his eyes.

Sadly, he knows other local firefighters who are fighting the same battle.

“Cancer is something that is, unfortunately, kind of part and parcel, intrinsic, to the fire service," Tomaszewski said.

For this reason, Chris Garcia says the government should do more.

"We need to take care of somebody that actually knows that the hazard, and yet they still choose to do it," Garcia said.

He chose to be a firefighter, because he believes it's his calling.

"A calling to help people, the opportunity presented itself and I wouldn't trade it for the world . . . I don't think you would scare a firefighter away. A firefighter is a firefighter at heart before he is even a firefighter," Garcia said.

In 2017, Georgia House Bill 146 was passed, which requires legally organized fire departments to provide cancer benefits to firefighters. Although this bill is in place, it is working better for some more than others.

Both Garcia and Tomaszewski say it's a step in the right direction for the state. They say they are thankful for the measures already passed to help those in uniform.

South Carolina is one of only two states that has not passed any law for firefighters related to cancer. There's currently a bill, however, in the House Judiciary Committee.

If you'd like to support Chris Garcia and his family, this GoFundMe has been set up to help with his medical bills.