April 19, 2019 | 73° F

Rutgers program offers treatment to thousands of 9/11 1st responders diagnosed with cancer, other illnesses

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 The Rutgers World trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program, part of the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, sees approximately 1,500 patients every year.

Remembering the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States remains as prevalent this year as it was 17 years ago.

Since the attacks, 10,000 first responders and others in the area of the World Trade Center have been diagnosed with cancer, and more than 2,000 deaths have been attributed to the exposure to toxins from the World Trade Center, according to asbestos.com.

At Rutgers, the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program, located on Busch campus, is working to help treat thousands of these people. Iris Udasin, principal investigator of the center and a professor at the Environmental Occupational Health Sciences Institute, said that the program sees approximately 1,400 to 1,500 people every year.

Nationwide there are approximately 55,000 people in the responder health program, 3,000 of which are members of the Rutgers site, she said.

“Since about 2010 we started to see more and more cancer cases, so we are now up to somewhere around 15, 16 percent of the members program wide (who) have some kind of cancer,” Udasin said.

Soon after the towers collapsed it was more common to see reports of illnesses such as asthma, sleep apnea and gastric reflux, she said. 

But, due to latency periods for certain types of cancer, more people are getting diagnosed with it 17 years later, she said.

“So, the concept of asbestos and cancer is, asbestos takes somewhere between 10 to 20 years, where you have to have it inside you before it actually does anything all that much,” Udasin said. “So, here we are 17 years after, and I said asbestos has a latency somewhere around 15 years, so that’s why cancers that might be related to asbestos we're first starting to see in the past couple of years.”

Programs like the one at Rutgers started around 2002, after illnesses were discovered, as part of the nationwide World Trade Center Health Program.

Udasin said more patients needed help than they had initially predicted.

“Originally, it was planned that I would see like 200 people a year from New Jersey that might have been working (at the World Trade Center), and now I’m seeing more like 1,400 people, 1,500 people,” she said. 

Based on the age and life expectancy of the first responders, she predicted the program would have to last for another 25 years, but could go longer if needed.

In previous years, leaders of these programs would have to go in front of Congress every five years to request more funding, she said.

During the last round, they were granted long-term funding of approximately 75 years, Udasin explained, which will give the programs the consistent money they need to continue treating first responders and doing new research in the face of this new trend.

“Basically we’ve become a fund, like almost like an insurance company, where if the patients have what we consider a World Trade (Center) related illness we treat them,” she said.

Along with seeing a lot more cancer patients, Udasin said people are still being seen with ongoing mental health issues, as well as people worried about whether they will get sick. 

To help these people, they spend a lot of time focusing on preventable risk factors — things someone can do or stop doing to reduce their risk of getting cancer, she said. These include improving one's diet, stopping smoking and exercising.

Also important, is early screening, she stated. Things like a colonoscopy or lung CAT scan can help find cancer and allow doctors to remove it early on.

Rutgers is a good place for such a program because it has a lot of resources to utilize, Udasin said. Students too can give back by getting involved with the program through shadowing the professionals and helping with research. 

It is important to remember the first responders, and people who put their lives on the line during times of tragedy, she said.

“We need to remember that when we see police officers and firefighters, they’re running toward the danger and we’re running away from the danger,” Udasin said. “And it’s important to take care of the people who take care of us.”

Ryan Stiesi

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