September 26, 2013 -- REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK
Cancer rates among first responders and residents of lower Manhattan who were directly impacted by the 9/11 terror attacks are 15 percent higher than in the general public, according to a study of the World Trade Center Health Registry published earlier this year.
I am among that 15 percent.
I was diagnosed with kidney cancer last year. I am relatively young for such a diagnosis. I lead a compulsively healthy lifestyle and have no family history of early onset cancer.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I left my downtown apartment to assist the first responders after witnessing the planes hit the towers. I was just half a block away when the Twin Towers collapsed and, like thousands of others, found myself gasping for air as toxic black dust filled my lungs.
Despite little scientific evidence, this is the only explanation I can come up with for my illness. A World Trade Center Health Program advisory panel that included doctors, union officials and community advocates agreed with me, arguing that it was plausible the toxic cloud contributed or will contribute to some cancers in people who suffered heavy exposure.
I count myself as one of the lucky ones. It took only a few months and three surgeries for a complete cure. Compared to treatment for some of the more virulent conditions doctors are starting to see in 9/11 victims, including thyroid, prostate and blood cancers, what I went through was a breeze.
However, surviving cancer is expensive. Even with insurance I've paid tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket. That doesn't factor in the lost income from the times I was too sick to work.
Once again, I may be in luck.
In 2010, the Victim Compensation Fund was established as part of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act to help offset the medical expenses of those who worked at Ground Zero or lived, worked or attended school in the immediate area. Fifty types of cancers are eligible for financial support. Kidney cancer is on the list.
I recently learned about the fund from Arthur Schwartz, a principal at Advocates for Justice, one of the firms that, for a small fee, helps eligible participants sign up and assists them in getting their claims processed.
Schwartz told me how disheartening it is for him that so few people who may be eligible for compensation know about the fund.
"The fund was expecting about 35,000 people to sign up. As of June, only 17,453 had registered and another 2,880 started the registration but didn't complete it," he told me.
Time is running out.
The deadline for filing initial paperwork is Thursday, Oct. 3. After that, the fund will no longer accept registrants, even for those who have a covered illness.
This is particularly troubling because, as Dr. Michael Crane, an assistant professor of preventative medicine at Mount Sinai, pointed out, the studies looking at 9/11 illnesses have only reviewed cases up to about 2008.
"We don't even really think about most cancers until at least 10 years after a toxic event but we are already seeing an increase here that is at or approaching statistical significance. This is the first clue that cancers might be elevated in this population," Crane told me.
Once you sign up for the fund, you have two years to complete your filing. The process is daunting. It involves an examination by a doctor affiliated with the World Trade Center Health Program, submission of detailed medical records and medical bills, employment records, and affidavits from various people who can vouch for your whereabouts on 9/11 and the following year.
Filing the complete claim can take up to two years and Schwartz said most claimants won't see any money for at least 18 months after that. As of now, just 53 claim decisions have been made by the fund.
That is why even if you aren't currently ill, I urge you to sign up for the compensation fund before time runs out. If you think you are eligible, this is a critical step you can take to protect your rights to collect health care and other benefits in the future.
It's too late to request the forms by mail but several options still exist to file before the Oct. 3 deadline. You can find out more by following this link.