Stephan Bunker is a Farmington firefighter, selectman, past president of the Maine Municipal Association, and a cancer survivor. Now as volunteer coordinator of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network’s efforts in Maine, he is trying to train firefighters statewide to reduce their exposure to carcinogens. Credit: Courtesy of Stephan Bunker

Stephan Bunker’s headaches were getting worse, and nothing helped them go away. Then one weekend in March 2020, he began to lose his balance and strength. At the urging of his wife, he saw his doctor who ordered the scan that revealed the growth pressing on his brain behind his right ear. It was central nervous system lymphoma. Brain cancer.

Bunker, now 73, has been a per diem firefighter in Farmington for 43 years and had grown up within the profession as the son of a volunteer fire chief. In 2019, he was among the first firefighters to respond to a propane explosion in Farmington that killed his fire department’s captain, injured others and destroyed a nonprofit’s building.

Over time he has learned how firefighters have a greater chance of getting cancer than the general population, due to the carcinogenic materials they inhale and touch. The explosion in Farmington, for instance, was “shocking beyond belief,” filling the air “as thick as you can imagine, with all kinds of products: sheetrock dust, insulation, wood paint,” he said. “You could hardly see your hand in front of you when you first arrived.”

Maine law recognizes this risk and therefore doesn’t ask firefighters to prove they got cancer in their line of work if they request workers’ compensation benefits to recover their lost wages and medical expenses. Rather the law presumes that firefighters’ cancer is work related if they meet a few requirements, and then it allows the employer — which, for firefighters, is usually a town or city — to try to disprove that the firefighter’s cancer arose from their job.

Today, Bunker is trying to make firefighting safer by reducing firefighters’ exposure to cancerous material and therefore hoping to prevent them from having to file workers’ compensation claims at all.

Bunker knew about the so-called “rebuttable presumption” in Maine law, and he was prepared to file a cancer claim for workers’ compensation benefits after his diagnosis. He wasn’t only a firefighter; he was a Farmington selectman responsible for overseeing the operations of town government, which purchases workers’ compensation insurance for instances like this.

struggle for medical bill compensation

And not only was he a selectman, he was also the past president of the Maine Municipal Association, which is the workers’ compensation insurance provider for many municipal employers, including Farmington.

None of that mattered, however, because the response to his workers’ compensation claim was the same as nearly every other Maine firefighters’ case over the last 10 years: a denial.

New information from the Maine Workers’ Compensation Board shows that, over the past decade, all but one of the 34 Maine firefighters who submitted cancer claims saw their employers oppose their request for benefits. Perhaps unlike others, however, Bunker was anticipating a denial, he said. He had his medical records in order and planned to appeal. He wanted to win not just for himself but to show others how it could be done.

“I understand the fiduciary responsibilities,” he said. “I understand how detailed and careful any insurance provider needs to be as it relates to claims.”  

At the same time, “My determination to make the best effort and best case on behalf of all firefighters that were filing under the cancer presumption is that it is absolutely work related. I wanted to expand the precedent for positive claims,” he said.

Certain injuries are obviously work related and qualify employees for workers’ compensation benefits, said Zachary Smith, a Bangor lawyer who has represented employees filing workers’ compensation claims. But cancer is more complicated. And because insurers have to approve or deny a claim within 14 days, they usually deny cancer claims, knowing they can always voluntarily pay later.

“They’ll find any way basically to reject it in the beginning unless they’re absolutely certain they’ll be held liable later,” Smith said.

But the denials may be discouraging firefighters from pursuing their cancer claims. Of the 33 firefighters between 2013 and 2023 who faced a challenge from their employer, nine then walked away, resulting in no payment. Another 18 ultimately won, and six are still in the dispute resolution process at the workers’ compensation board.

It took two years, and refusing to accept a deal in mediation, but Bunker was ultimately successful in winning benefits for lost wages and medical expenses. He had one big advantage: Years prior he had specifically requested a test from his doctor to establish a baseline for when he did not have cancer, a little-known requirement under Maine law to qualify for the benefits in the future.

“I felt very strong in my case,” he said. “I was determined to fight the good fight, if you will, and it would seem that the information that I put out was prevailing on that. I was one of the lucky ones.”

Stephan Bunker is a Farmington firefighter, selectman, past president of the Maine Municipal Association, and a cancer survivor. Now as volunteer coordinator of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network’s efforts in Maine, he aims to train firefighters statewide to reduce their exposure to carcinogens. Credit: Courtesy of Stephan Bunker

Bunker’s professional and personal experiences have led him to try to prevent firefighters from having to file workers’ compensation claims in the first place by teaching them important steps to reduce their exposure to carcinogens. He wants to prevent cancer.

Bunker is now the coordinator of the Firefighter Cancer Support Network’s efforts in Maine. He would like to help the Maine Municipal Association and other insurers develop an incentive program to potentially reduce workers’ compensation insurance premiums for municipalities that train their firefighters on safety tips to limit their risk of developing cancer.

“The steps themselves are clear. The manner they could implement the steps is very straightforward. I just want to get the process down and offer it as a motivational incentive for communities to see there’s a benefit in better firefighter health, and, secondly, they could reduce their operating costs with less workers’ comp insurance premiums,” he said.

He currently volunteers his time to travel statewide, educating firefighters about 12 basic preventative practices, including the following:

— Firefighters tend to take off their self-contained breathing apparatuses too soon. “Just because the smoke has cleared does not mean the atmosphere has cleared,” Bunker said.

— Firefighters should brush or wash their turnout gear, from their helmet to boots, on scene to get off as much soot as possible. Then they should wash their gear in extractor washing machines made for firefighting apparel. “Otherwise, if we put it back in the station, we are off-gassing into the station,” Bunker said.

— At the fire scene, firefighters should wipe areas of skin with the greatest exposure, such as their face, ears, hands and head. Then, “shower within the hour,” Bunker said.

Bunker’s cancer diagnosis came with a bleak prognosis. If eradicated, there was an 80 percent chance it would return within two years, he said. But Bunker jumped into emergency surgery, months of intensive chemotherapy requiring eight rounds of five-day inpatient stays, and an immunotherapy medication trial. Three years later, he is well — and eager to prevent other firefighters from going through the same ordeal.

He wants firefighters who have cancer, or their family members, to reach out to him for general support. In addition to training firefighters on preventative practices, he also knows how to help people filing workers’ compensation claims, speaks to groups representing firefighters, and is hoping to work with workers’ compensation insurance companies to create safety incentive programs.

“Day or night, give me a call,” he said.

He may be reached at (207) 592-1247 or

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Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on domestic and...