Thousands of firefighters, police officers, contractors and civilians continue to be diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer 13 years after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but some are being denied health insurance because their cancers were diagnosed too soon.
That’s what happened to John Meyers, a former New York police officer and first responder who provided security to the World Trade Center on September 11. He was diagnosed with IV oropharyngeal cancer three years and 10 months after tending to ground zero, CNN reports.
The minimum latency period for oropharyngeal cancers, meaning the minimum time period needed to prove a connection between exposure to toxins at ground zero and a diagnosis of that type of cancer, is four years.
Meyers was about eight weeks shy of eligibility for cancer coverage or compensation.
“We got screwed,” he told the television station. “They don’t know what the latency period should be; four years may be right, or it may be wrong.”
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which runs the World Trade Center Health Program, determined the latency periods for 58 cancers, including breast, colon, lung, skin, ovarian, esophagus and stomach cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the ACS, says that oropharyngeal cancer in this population, absent risk factors like drinking, smoking or a human papillomavirus infection, is unusual.
Determining an accurate latent window is a complex process.
Brawley adds that four years is probably a fair timeline for developing oropharyngeal cancer, even considering the unique circumstances surrounding 9/11.
"I think (the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) made a terrible mistake," argued Michael Banahan, a first responder diagnosed with stage III oropharyngeal cancer at age 44, three years and five months after 9/11.
He was also denied coverage because he was diagnosed too soon.
"I'm going to die knowing I got my cancer from 9/11. I don't care what NIOSH says,” said Banahan.
Advocates for responders say they will petition the institute to amend its rules regarding coverage for oropharyngeal cancer.