Ground Zero Cancer Victims Happy But Frustrated


He said he'd had several previous injuries covered by Worker's Compensation, but he had to get cancer treatment under his own healthcare plan. He went to a World Trade Center Health Program center for an initial exam, but they said he couldn't get treatment because he had cancer. Instead, he had to battle with insurance companies and stress about bills and staying within his health insurance company's network.

"It's not about the money," Neal said. "It's about the agencies and the companies that should stand up for their employees and take care of them."

After several surgeries and treatments, he says he's doing "really well" but battling some side effects of radiation.

He said he's optimistic about the Zadroga Act Expansion, but also frustrated by the slow response because he thinks agencies -- not the individual doctors -- have been "discriminating" against those with certain illnesses.

He said he only personally knows one other officer who was diagnosed with cancer after the World Trade Center attack -- and that person sat at his old desk on the first floor and died of the same kind of cancer he had.

"Two people work in one special room in One Police Plaza got the rarest form of cancer," he said. "That can't be coincidental."

And doctors say it probably isn't.

Oladele Ogunseitan said the government's announcement -- the first acknowledgement linking the toxic dust to cancer -- wouldn't surprise his colleagues because asbestos was in the World Trade Center and is a known carcinogen. Ogunseitan chairs the Department of Population Health and Disease Prevention at the University of California, Irvine.

"The World Trade Center building was constructed at a time that asbestos was used in building materials," he said. "By some estimates, 400 tons of asbestos was used in the building, and asbestos-containing fire retardant was used up to the 64th floor of the building."

Ogunseitan attributed the government's lag time to litigation, and said assessing the chemical composition of airborne debris immediately could have led to cancer-preventative measures.

"Knowing sooner might have helped in people's planning to some extent," Ogunseitan said. "[It] would potentially increase life expectancy and delay disease."

Dr. Anthony Robbins, who co-edits the Journal of Public Health Policy, said a latent period between exposure and cancer development -- like what Stroehlein and Neal experienced -- is to be expected. Leukemia develops first, after about 10 years, and mesothelioma can take up to 40 years to appear.

Overall, about 40,000 Sept. 11 responders and survivors receive monitoring and 20,000 get treatment for their illnesses as part of the Zadroga Act's health program. The FealGood Foundation, founded by first responder John Feal, lists 341 9/11-related cancer deaths to date among first responders.

And as more cancer victims come forward, advocates say the value of the fund and the length of time it will be available must be expanded. Right now, it will only last through 2016.

"It means a great deal to men and women knowing they can go to treatment facilities and get medical care for free," said Sean Riordan of the FealGood Foundation. "It's a bittersweet victory because these men and women will have their cancers regarded as caused by the work they did at ground zero, but there is now a greater pool to share in the same pot."

Dr. Heather Hawthorn, a resident in the ABC News Medical Unit, contributed reporting.

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