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Breast cancer survivor Rayanne Dubkov and some of her firefighting colleagues who have raised money for the Louise Temerty Breast Cancer Centre.

Peter Power

Women who battle blazes have a higher-than-average risk of the disease − which is why their colleagues are raising money to help beat it

When Rayanne Dubkov, 45, a Toronto firefighter and captain, was diagnosed with breast cancer a couple of years ago, she could point to no family history of the disease. "I'm the first in my family to have breast cancer – lucky me," she jokes. Having spent her whole working life in the fire service, including 12 years in her hometown of Manchester, England, and the last 13 years in Toronto, she suspects the cancer was job-related.

Breast cancer, along with several other types of cancer, is an occupational hazard for firefighters. The risk is higher among firefighters compared to the general population, something the Ontario government recently recognized by announcing new provincial legislation that will extend health-care benefits for firefighters with various cancers, a list that now includes breast cancer. And the number of cases may rise as more women are steadily joining what has historically been a male-dominated profession.

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The elevated risk was one reason why the Toronto Professional Fire Fighters' Association (TPFFA) donated $100,000 to the Louise Temerty Breast Cancer Centre at Sunnybrook.

The firefighters' commitment to fight breast cancer began with a North American-wide resolution by fire departments, predominantly staffed by men, to do something to show their support for curing a disease mainly suffered by their female colleagues. It was decided at a convention that all fire departments would engage in selling pink T-shirts to raise funds.

So since 2011, Toronto firefighters have been selling the pink T-shirts every September in support of breast cancer. And each October, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the Toronto firefighters are allowed to wear the pink T-shirt for one of their shifts. It's been easy to rally support, says Frank Ramagnano, secretary-treasurer for the TPFFA, because so many firefighters have a friend, mother or sister who has gone through breast cancer." The service has mainly sold the shirts to firefighters, who are buying them and giving them to friends and family members. "What we usually suggest to firefighters is that they buy it, wear it for a shift and then give it to a cancer survivor," says Frank.

He says that helping Sunnybrook was a natural choice. "It had partly to do with a long-standing relationship that our organization has had with Sunnybrook." The TPFFA had already been supporting Sunnybrook's Ross Tilley Burn Centre and regional skin bank. "We also wanted to keep the money local, since fire departments across North America are already raising money for breast cancer. So when we heard that Sunnybrook was going to open up a state-of-the-art [breast] cancer centre, we wanted to assist with that," he says.

"It's only through the firefighters' donations and the community's support that we've been able to create this centre, which allows all the different professionals who treat women's breast issues to come together and work together. And it's given us the space and the facility to create a number of integrated programs," says Dr. Eileen Rakovitch, medical director of the Louise Temerty Breast Cancer Centre.

The centre embraces an integrated breast cancer care model, which essentially offers patients one-stop shopping when it comes to diagnosis, treatment and follow-up care. The idea is to wrap care around patients' needs to make the process as comfortable, quick and as stress-free as possible. "Our vision has been to ask ourselves: 'What can we offer that women can't get in the community, and how can we fill in the care gap?'" says Dr. Rakovitch.

For example, the Marion C. Soloway Breast Rapid Diagnostic Unit allows women to undergo assessment, which may include an ultrasound and biopsy, then receive results and discuss them with a surgeon all within a 24-hour period. PYNK is a breast cancer program within the centre that's entirely focused on young women and issues that are unique to them, such as early menopause, fertility and preservation of eggs.

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Meanwhile, the Immediate Breast Reconstruction Program offers eligible patients the convenience of seeing a surgeon and plastic surgeon in the same visit, so they can decide the best treatment and discuss how to optimize the aesthetic results.

"The firefighters' gift has tremendous impact," says Dr. Rakovitch. "It buys certain pieces [of equipment] that we need, some supplies and dedicated nurses who can train other nurses. We have many different needs and uses for donations on all scales."

Frank hints that they may soon set a new fundraising goal to reach. "And the pink T-shirt tradition will likely continue. I think it will become a firefighter tradition – the fire service likes tradition."

Besides the commitment and generosity their breast cancer campaign shows, it also speaks to their tenacity. As Frank suggests, helping to battle breast cancer through this fundraising campaign isn't unlike fighting a blaze: "Sometimes it takes a while to get a situation back to normal, but we never give up until we achieve what we set out to do."


This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's advertising department, in consultation with Sunnybrook. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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