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Lorenzo Abundiz was born to be a firefighter. Tall, strong and fearless, he spent 27 years in the fire service in Southern California and earned a Medal of Valor for rescuing two firemen who had been buried under a collapsed wall while fighting a commercial fire in 1990.
Lorenzo emerged from that rescue feeling invincible. Eight years later, it all came crashing down when the Santa Ana, California, man was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, a rare and highly aggressive soft-tissue cancer that had been caused by his daring rescue.
“The doctors told me I had a 4 percent chance of survival,” Lorenzo, 63, tells PEOPLE.
Within days of being diagnosed with cancer, the city Lorenzo had spent most of his career protecting dropped his workers’ compensation benefits.
“The moment [the city] found out it was cancer they turned their backs on me and said, ‘You’ve got your own insurance,’ ” he recalls. “It hurt my heart because all I wanted was to use my benefits to get better so I could return to the job that I loved.”
It took 30 days for Lorenzo’s personal HMO insurance to approve a surgery to remove his tumor. During this time, he grew a second tumor the size of a golf ball. It took two surgeries and extensive radiation, but Lorenzo beat leiomyosarcoma in September 2003. One month later, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer.
“The doctors found traces of tar in that tumor,” Lorenzo says. “They asked if I had been a smoker and I said I’d never smoked a day in my life, but I’d breathed in a lot of smoke from burning tar paper while standing on roofs to fight fires.”
This led Lorenzo and his doctors to strongly suspect that this cancer, much like his first, was brought on by the toxic exposure all firefighters face on a daily basis. As soon as this connection was made, Lorenzo remembered all the friends and colleagues he had lost to cancer during his career.
“It was the end of 1974 when I started [as a firefighter] and I remembered guys getting cancer, but it wasn’t something we all thought of,” he says. “Later on in my career, more and more guys were coming down with it. I thought it was bad luck, but it was more than that.”
Cancer is the leading cause of firefighter line-of-duty deaths. According to the International Association of Firefighters, 60 percent of firefighters will die from cancer caused by inhaling smoke filled with toxins from the plastics, foams and flame-retardant coatings common in every household.
From his hospital bed, Lorenzo resolved to travel the country sharing his experiences at firehouses in the hopes that raising awareness of occupational cancer could save other firefighters from ending up in the same situation he had experienced.
With support from his wife, Peggy Abundiz, Lorenzo created the nonprofit Code 3 for a Cure to raise awareness of occupational cancer and share the steps firefighters can take to reduce their risks.
“There are really simple steps firefighters can take to help them prevent cancer,” Peggy, 48, says. “We can’t give them million dollar space suits to protect them from everything, but we can educate them on how to minimize their risks.”
These steps include taking a break between calls to wash or clean soot from gear, face, and hands; annual cancer screenings; getting plenty of sleep and reducing exposure to exhaust emissions inside fire stations.
As Lorenzo explains, he and his fellow firefighters used to view a face covered in soot as a badge of honor and would allow it to remain for hours after a call. Now, knowing that many carcinogens in smoke can be absorbed through the skin, he and Peggy are trying to encourage those in the fire service to wash frequently to be “shining knights.”
In 2012, Code 3 for a Cure expanded its programs to provide financial assistance to firefighters battling cancer and their families.
“Anybody that’s been affected by cancer knows, it affects you from an emotional standpoint, an income standpoint and a job standpoint,” Rick McDonald, an assistant fire chief and cancer survivor, tells PEOPLE. “All the treatments and the disease itself are just so debilitating.”
McDonald was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2015 and received a grant from C3FAC to help with the costs of his treatment. He says the grants are a huge help but he’s most impressed by the foundation’s efforts in raising awareness.
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“There’s a lot of lung cancer and liver cancer among firefighters in particular, but to say it was caused directly by the fire service is hard to prove,” the 64-year-old says. “On September 11, 343 firefighters were killed. Now, 15 years later, more than 1,000 firefighters have died from cancer directly related to that attack.”
Lorenzo continued his work with the foundation through a third cancer battle, this time with prostate cancer in 2008. The following year, he underwent six months of treatment at MD Anderson’s Proton Therapy Center in Houston, Texas. The Houston fire department provided the veteran firefighter with housing for the duration of his treatment, and he credits the support of this department with helping him through his third cancer battle.
Because her husband is no longer capable of the athletic feats that once defined him, Peggy has taken it upon herself to raise awareness about firefighters’ risk of occupational cancer among the general public by running in races across the country in full firefighter gear, including carrying an oxygen tank on her back. Lorenzo waits for her at every finish line.
“Peggy is a real firefighter in my eyes because she’s fighting a real fire and that’s cancer,” Lorenzo says. “I salute her for her efforts and I know it’s not easy.”
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“She’s had two knee surgeries and I tell her I hope people see her desire to make a difference,” he continues. “I think of her as my warrior and an angel.”