Four years ago, retired New York City police Sgt. Michael Guedes was lying with his girlfriend, Maria Rodriguez, when she felt a lump on his chest. A trip to the doctor confirmed a surprising diagnosis in April 2015: stage 3 breast cancer, rare in men and comprising less than 1 percent of all breast cancer diagnoses.
“I was pretty shocked,” Guedes, 66, tells PEOPLE. “There is no family history, I am active, I work out on a regular basis. And my doctor said I don’t fit the mold of who would be expected to get it.”
For the men who responded to the 9/11 terror attacks and were in the area after, however, breast cancer appears to be more common as a result of the toxic fallout of the collapsed buildings.
Guedes was among those who arrived quickly enough at ground zero on Sept. 11, 2001, that buildings were still falling as he searched for survivors amid the smoldering rubble.
“There was dust and smoke in the air the whole time,” he tells PEOPLE. “It never cleared up.”
Days later, he began looking for remains at the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, raking and shoveling through debris still covered in dangerous dust.
“I didn’t think about getting sick,” he says, noting he wore a mask most of the time and a protective suit over his clothes. “They said it was fine.”
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Less than one in 1,000 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. But dozens of men who were around ground zero during and after the 9/11 attacks have it.
Guedes believes his cancer is related to his recovery work. So does his attorney, Michael Barasch, who is representing 37 men with breast cancer that worked or went to school in the area of ground zero. He believes there are many more cases.
Barasch says the incidence of these male breast cancer cases are above what would be expected, including in a 35-year-old who on 9/11 had been a student at Stuyvesant High School, nestled near the WTC site in lower Manhattan.
“This is New York City’s version of Love Canal,” says Barasch, referring to the toxic waste dump linked in the late ’70s with an inordinate number of miscarriages and strange illnesses in a Niagara Falls neighborhood.
Some 40,000 of the 76,000 Sept. 11 first responders registered with the World Trade Center Health Program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in Manhattan have health conditions, including 10,000 who have developed various cancers associated with exposure to the toxins, according to Dr. Michael Crane, its medical director.
Each month, 50 to 80 new cases of cancers associated with the 9/11 toxins have been certified at the program, Crane tells PEOPLE.
Guedes, like many other sick responders, advocates for lawmakers to reauthorize money for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund — a push that has recently drawn national headlines. The fund has already paid out billions but is set to run out of money next year amid escalating claims. (A bill is pending in Congress to ensure the fund’s long-term viability.)
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“We got sent down there and I am positive we would do it again, but you can’t let people die or be sick,” Guedes says. “I believe other people are going to get sick. I am certain there will be more to come.”
Following his 2015 diagnosis, Guedes went through surgery to remove the breast and 11 nearby lymph nodes where the cancer had spread. Chemotherapy and radiation followed, and now he is on the drug tamoxifen to reduce his risk of recurrence and new disease.
Crane expects many more first responders to develop new cancers and says they will need help in the future.
Says Guedes: “I am a private person and I want to remain anonymous. But this is such an important issue. People are dying.” (People.com Latest News) More