Christian Worby, a firefighter for the Coon Rapids Fire Department, at first thought the pain in his side he started experiencing in summer 2020 was a fractured rib. The 42-year-old didn’t seek medical attention because he figured the treatment plan for such a break is allowing it to heal on its own; however, when the pain continued off and on for over a year, Christian knew something else was wrong.
In October 2021, a biopsy revealed Christian had multiple myeloma, a non-curable cancer of the plasma cells. It is a situation becoming all too familiar with firefighters across the state. According to the National Fire Protection Association, more than 68% of all firefighters will develop some form of cancer in their lifetimes, a rate much higher than the general U.S. population.
Thankfully for firefighters in Minnesota, the Hometown Heroes Assistance Program (HHAP), the most comprehensive firefighter well-being legislation in the nation, passed through the legislature last year. The HHAP offers financial support for cancer diagnoses through the MnFIRE Critical Illness program, which provides a lump-sum cash payment up to $20,000 to assist with expenses. The Critical Illness benefit also covers diagnoses of cardiac, COVID-19 and other critical illnesses. Christian said this program has allowed his family to focus on treatment rather than financial worry due to the cancer diagnosis.
In addition to maxing out their deductible, the Worby family has been paying out of pocket for gas money to travel to weekly appointments at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, along with accommodations while away from home and receiving treatment. Plus, Christian will not have enough sick time to cover the minimum of six weeks he is away while having chemotherapy treatment and a stem cell transplant. The Critical Illness program can help with all of these extra expenses.
“I was blown away when I heard about [the Critical Illness program],” Christian said.
Christian thought submitting a claim for the Critical Illness program was an easy process. After making a phone call, creating an account and sending in paperwork, his application was approved.
“It’s great having the extra financial support,” Christian said. “It’s an extra safety net. It’s an expensive deal having a major illness.”
For five months after his diagnosis, Christian was able to continue working while doing a mild chemotherapy treatment. At the beginning of April, Christian started an intensive six-week chemotherapy treatment and stem cell transplant, which requires him to stay in Rochester.
“They take my stem cells out to keep them safe and then give me a traditional high dose of beat-the-heck-out-of-you chemo,” he said. “Then they slowly give me my stem cells back and let my body figure out which way is up again.”
To show support, fellow Coon Rapids Fire Department firefighters shaved their heads the day before Christian began his treatment, a moment highlighted on KARE 11 recently.
While multiple myeloma is found in the general population, it is found more often in firefighters. Only 20% of the cases found are discovered in those under the age of 50.
“Because I’m so young it wouldn’t surprise me if being a firefighter was a contributing factor,” Christian said.
While Christian knows the cancer is not curable, it is treatable. And Christian wants to fight the illness to gain as much time as possible to share time with his wife and together watch their two young sons – ages 7 and 2 – grow.
“For some people, it’s aggressive cancer, and some people, it’s not, so I just cross my fingers and remember I’m comparatively young,” he said.
While the diagnosis is challenging for his family, he is thankful for the HHAP.
“We’re very fortunate in Minnesota we’ve had people working on [the Hometown Heroes Assistance Program], and that we have it available to us,” Christian said. “It’s a smooth application process and if you qualify and you heard about it, then why wouldn’t you apply? It would be really unfortunate if someone was able to apply for this assistance but had no idea it existed.”
Christian was also recently interviewed by WCCO about these new HHAP resources.
All Minnesota firefighters have been automatically enrolled in this statewide Critical Illness insurance policy. To learn more about the Hometown Heroes Assistance Program or to file a claim, visit mnfireinitiative.com/hhap.