Three years ago, Vito Oliva knew something was a little off but chalked it up to turning 50.
He went to the doctor, having felt the urge for months to frequently urinate. But after his internist discovered elevated levels of PSAs in April 2016, a biopsy a few months later confirmed the worst: Oliva, a retired New York City police lieutenant, had prostate cancer.
December of that year saw good news — a successful treatment involving radioactive seeds — followed by more bad news: in early 2017, Oliva was diagnosed with his second cancer, stomach lymphoma, which was caught early by his gastroenterologist.
Like some 10,000 others, Oliva is a 9/11 responder who has been diagnosed with cancer linked to his time at either ground zero or the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, working amid the fumes and particles from the collapsed buildings while searching the debris.
Some 50 to 80 new cancers are reported each month among these rescue and recovery workers, Dr. Michael Crane, head of the World Trade Center Health Program at Mount Sinai in Manhattan, tells PEOPLE.
The long-term health problems plaguing 9/11 responders and survivors are again drawing national attention as advocates lobby for more funding for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.
Luis Alvarez, a responder who died last month after 68 rounds of chemotherapy, made an appearance before Congress weeks before his death.
In a study published in June, Mount Sinai researchers showed that inhaling the toxic dust may have caused changes in the responders and survivors’ inflammatory and immune regulatory mechanisms in prostate tissue, likely leading to the increased rates of the cancer among them.
“Prostate cancer is one of the cancers that is significantly higher in first responders, and we wanted to understand why,” study author Dr. Emanuela Taioli, director of the Institute for Translational Epidemiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told Medscape.
“For the first time, we think we have discovered the underlying mechanism,” Taioli said.
The day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Oliva began working 12-hour shifts at the Fresh Kills landfill, sifting through the materials brought on barges from the collapsed towers.
“There was plenty of dust, and we didn’t have masks over there,” Oliva remembers. He says they eventually wore painters’ masks — “those little white masks, with no respirators.”
Crane, of the WTC Health Program, tells PEOPLE that the same poisons from the pulverized buildings at ground zero were in the dust on the debris at the landfill. These have been shown to include a mix of asbestos, silica, benzene, polychlorinated biphenyls, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds and metals.
About a year after the towers fell, Oliva developed gastric reflux, which the WTC health program has linked to responders inhaling the dust. At the time, Oliva didn’t make the connection.
“I thought it was part of being Italian,” he says, laughing.
Three years ago, Oliva started going for annual health screenings at the WTC Health Program through Mount Sinai. He says the program did not test him for PSA levels that could have indicated prostate cancer or for the cancer markers for stomach lymphoma, and he feels lucky his personal doctors discovered the cancers.
He wishes that the WTC Health Program would begin more comprehensive screenings for a wider array of cancers, he says.
(Crane tells PEOPLE that the program follows the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendations for medical screening for cancer — which covers screening for colon cancer, lung cancer, cervical cancer and breast cancer. For prostate cancer, the USPSTF encourages asymptomatic men in their late 50s and 60s to make an individual decision about the blood test.)
Oliva left the N.Y.C. police department in 2006 to work as a supervising investigator for the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, looking into child abuse. He left there when he turned 50 in 2017 due to lingering symptoms related to the prostate cancer, and he remains unable to work.
He’s received money from the September 11th Victim’s Compensation Fund and like so many other responders hopes Congress reauthorizes the fund as they’ve promised.
Everyone who aided in the rescue and recovery did so “with the sole idea of helping out somebody else,” Oliva says.
“Now with people getting sick by doing the right thing, in my opinion, they should have the right thing done back to them,” he says.