9/11 First Responders: Heroes Battling Cancer and Cognitive Impairment

In the wake of the devastating terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, a group of unsung heroes emerged – the 9/11 first responders. These brave individuals, comprising firefighters, paramedics, police officers, and other rescue workers, selflessly rushed to the aid of survivors amidst the chaos and destruction. Their sacrifices were immense, but little did they know that the aftermath of 9/11 would bring about a different kind of battle – one against cancer, cognitive impairment, and a government that was slow to respond.

The Day That Changed Lives Forever

On that fateful day in 2001, 19 al-Qaeda terrorists orchestrated a series of attacks on American soil, targeting New York City and Washington, D.C. Four U.S. passenger planes were hijacked, and the World Trade Center became a symbol of tragedy as two planes crashed into its iconic towers at over 466 miles per hour. Amidst the chaos, over 100 EMS units, private ambulances, 2,000 NYPD officers, and 214 FDNY units mobilized to rescue as many people as possible.

However, the toll was devastating. Among the nearly 3,000 lives lost in New York City, 343 were firefighters and paramedics, 23 were NYPD officers, and 37 were Port Authority officers. These first responders, who displayed unwavering courage in the face of terror, would soon face a different battle – one against grave illnesses.

The Silent Suffering of Heroes

Studies conducted in the aftermath of 9/11 revealed alarming rates of cancer and cognitive impairment among first responders. In 2020, Mount Sinai reported a high incidence of cancer among these heroes, with elevated risks for certain cancers. Police officers and recovery workers faced a 9% higher cancer rate than the norm, along with a 25% higher risk of prostate cancer, a 41% higher risk of leukemia, and a staggering 219% higher risk of thyroid cancer.

Cognitive impairment also plagued these first responders. A study at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in 2020 revealed that responders with cognitive impairment often exhibited a “brain age” ten years older than normal, putting them at high risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia at an earlier age.

The Battle for Recognition and Aid

Despite their sacrifices and the dire health challenges they faced, many 9/11 first responders had to wage a relentless battle for assistance. They launched class-action lawsuits against the City of New York, the Port Authority, and the EPA, holding them accountable for exposing workers to carcinogenic materials. Attorney David Worby, who initiated one such lawsuit, secured a monumental victory, winning $1 billion for his 8,000 clients.

Comedian Jon Stewart emerged as an unexpected advocate for these heroes. He passionately criticized lawmakers who hesitated to support the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which provided essential medical treatment, benefits, and support for 9/11 survivors. Despite resistance, the bill passed in 2011 and was extended in 2015.

However, the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund remained a point of contention. In 2019, Jon Stewart, joined by 9/11 first responder Luis Alvarez, fought tirelessly on Capitol Hill for its funding. Their emotional plea resonated, leading to the passing of the Never Forget the Heroes Act, ensuring assistance through 2090.

The Ongoing Struggle

The battle for 9/11 first responders is far from over. Physicians predict worsening health conditions for those suffering from cancer and cognitive impairment. By 2020, over 227 New York City firefighters had succumbed to 9/11-related illnesses, and more than 200 NYPD officers had lost their lives due to these diseases. Even Luis Alvarez, a passionate advocate, passed away in 2019, weeks before the act he fought for became law.

As we reflect on the tragedy of September 11, 2001, let us never forget the selfless sacrifices made by these brave men and women. Their unwavering courage in the face of disaster and their relentless fight for recognition and aid serve as a testament to the indomitable spirit of humanity.


1. How did 9/11 first responders suffer after the terrorist attacks? 9/11 first responders faced a higher risk of cancer and cognitive impairment due to their exposure to toxic materials during rescue efforts.

2. What was the role of Jon Stewart in supporting 9/11 first responders? Jon Stewart played a crucial role in advocating for legislation that provided medical treatment, benefits, and support for 9/11 survivors.

3. How were 9/11 first responders finally granted assistance? After a passionate plea by Jon Stewart and Luis Alvarez, the Never Forget the Heroes Act was passed, ensuring assistance for first responders through 2090.

4. What challenges did 9/11 first responders face in seeking assistance? Many faced bureaucratic hurdles and had to file lawsuits against government entities to hold them accountable for exposing workers to carcinogenic materials.

5. What is the current health outlook for 9/11 first responders? Physicians anticipate worsening health conditions for those suffering from diseases like cancer and cognitive impairment due to their exposure during the 9/11 rescue efforts.

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