Lakeland firefighter says Florida law helps him in fight with rare cancer

Critics say SB 426 misses too many forms of the disease

LAKELAND, Fla – 31-year-old Clay Geiger of Lakeland understands the risks of a firefighter but he never imagined a rare cancer would put his life on the brink and a state law would help him pay for the medical treatments to fight it.

“I didn’t have to worry about bills and mortgage and everything like that,” he said,”I was able to just focus on treatment and getting through it.”

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The combination of chemotherapy and radiation during the first 6- weeks of Geiger’s cancer treatment left him 25 pounds lighter than when he started the journey 6-months ago.

“It’s like you’re going through survival mode where you’re just trying to continue to the next day, " he told News 6, “It was very tough.”

Geiger was diagnosed with NK-T cell lymphoma a rare and aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

He said a routine biopsy in his nose during sinus surgery provided the first evidence of the cancer.

“They actually radiated my neck and face, Geiger recalled, “Eating was very difficult.”

Geiger credits SB 426 for the financial support to fight the disease which is diagnosed only 10 to 12 times a year in the United States.

Geiger said he is still not in remission but under Senate Bill 426 he was able to choose “the treatment route” and specialists he wanted to provide the best chance of beating the cancer.

Geiger devoted the last 7 -years of his career to the city of Lakeland as a firefighter-paramedic.

He told News 6 he has no theory as to what fire might have triggered the nasal cancer but he is grateful the bill covered his cancer treatments.

“If there’s a wind change you will potentially inhale that smoke,” he said, “Being that it’s in the sinus passage it just makes sense that (a fire) could have contributed.”

Under SB 426 , 21 cancers including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma are covered under the legislation.

It was signed into law in 2019 by Governor Ron DeSantis and supported by State Fire Marshall and CFO Jimmy Patronis.

While the bill was there for Geiger there are many men and women who are excluded from financial assistance because there are so many cancers excluded from coverage under the law.

According to the National Cancer Institute there are more than 100 types of cancer. reports cancers are usually named for the organs or tissues where the cancers form. Cancers also may be described by the type of cell that formed them, such as an epithelial cell or a squamous cell.”

Maitland attorney Geoff Bichler represents firefighters across the state who have been denied coverage because their cancers are not included under the current list of 21.

“If it’s not a named cancer it’s not covered under the law, Bichler told News 6 “The science is evolving to the point that I think we can really make the connection between the work and cancer,”

Veteran Orange County firefighter Travis Brown told News 6 he agrees because the current law left him behind.

Brown was diagnosed with bile duct cancer last October but was denied coverage by the county because the cancer is not included in the current version of SB 426 .

Cancer experts report it too is rare with only 8-thousand cases diagnosed each year.

Brown retires from the department after 27 years this week, so he does not lose his position and benefits under “medical separation.”

“Every cancer should count.” Brown told News 6, “I did 27 years of service for the people of this county and I feel like I’m alone at the end here.”

Florida’s state fire Marshall and CFO Jimmy Patronis is aware of the cancer issue and is reviewing it.

You can read more about SB 426, here.

About the Author:

News 6’s Emmy Award-winning Investigative Reporter Mike Holfeld has made Central Florida history with major investigations that have led to new policies, legislative proposals and even -- state and national laws. If you have an issue or story idea, call Mike's office at 407-521-1322.