By SF Fire Credit Union

Igniting Change: Tony Stefani’s Story and the Mission of the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation

In 2001, Tony Stefani was just shy of turning 50 when he heard the words no one wants to hear, “You have cancer.” A 28-year veteran of the San Francisco Fire Department, Tony was the Captain of Rescue 1, located in Station 1, and like many others in his field, did not consider his occupation as being high risk for cancer.

Tony was diagnosed with a rare form of kidney cancer that strikes just 1 in 100,000. At the time, firefighters with cancer had to prove the harmful exposure they experienced on the job correlated with their diagnosis. In the months following his diagnosis, he used all his sick and vacation days for medical appointments, and his doctor advised him to retire. An abundance of kindness and compassion from his fellow SFFD colleagues shined through – 200 officers each donated a day of their own sick time to Tony so that he could retire with full pension at age 50.

“Launching the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation was my way to thank the friends and colleagues who came through for me when I needed it most, and my way to pay it forward to those who may someday need help,” Tony says of the organization he founded in 2007. Through the generosity of Local 798, he received a $100,000 grant to start the organization and continues to serve as its president. Its mission is dedicated to the early detection and prevention of cancer in both active and retired
San Francisco firefighters.

“We wanted to establish a direct link to elevated rates of cancer and toxic exposures in our profession,” said Tony, which was a novel idea at the time. There was little awareness about the dangerous long-term health effects of smoke inhalation and the importance of using protective equipment to prevent inhaling toxic gases as well as the need for immediate gross decontamination before leaving the scene of a fire.

Since 2007, the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation has helped more than 400 people, with current active cases over 150. It has expanded its reach to help firefighters fighting cancer throughout Northern California and has been a model for other communities to follow. Its health navigation services range from providing financial assistance so that firefighters can get second opinions, to supplementing insurance benefits, evaluating patient treatment options and even offering transportation between medical appointments. The organization is comprised of 15 board members including firefighters and doctors from Stanford and UCSF, and it actively commissions science-based studies including new research about the importance of nutrition.

The San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation relies on donations to fund its annual operating budget, and recently hosted its biennial Igniting Hope gala at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, where more than 500 people attended. Former SF Giants slugger Hunter Pence gave keynote remarks and SF Fire Credit Union was a proud sponsor of the event.

Tony is optimistic for the future. “My hope is for positive change, and through the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation we are helping a lot of people.”

Check out Tony's story, and more in our July Siren Newsletter.