Before cancer death, Goodyear firefighter Austin Peck shared story
PHOENIX — As a child, Austin Peck knew he wanted to be a firefighter. He achieved his dream and lived it for 11 years until his passing on Aug. 31. He had just celebrated his 35th birthday.
“I was diagnosed with sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma. They call it SNUC for short,” explained Peck in an exclusive interview with KTAR News 92.3 FM weeks before his line-of-duty death.
Peck medically retired from the Goodyear Fire Department this summer after more than a decade in the service.
“I was diagnosed in 2015. The doctor that diagnosed me told me I had an 18% chance to live within five months and that was with treatment,” he said.
His cancer is so rare, there is very little research or treatment options to fight it. The sinus cancer grows very rapidly and attacks aggressively.
“The day I got diagnosed was the day we were supposed to sign a loan to build a brand new house,” he recalled.
Peck’s two daughters at the time were 3 and 6 years old. Their names are Marley and Harper. On top of the halt on the family’s new home and the devastating cancer diagnosis, he also had to break the news to them that he had to move.
“How do you explain to two baby girls that daddy has to move to California?” he said.
California was where he could get special treatment for his rare cancer.
“I wanted them to live a normal life. They were going to school and dance, so they had to live with my parents for four months. They couldn’t understand why daddy had to leave,” he said.
Pecks wife, Erin, had to quit her job as a labor nurse to become his caretaker.
“She’s no longer the wife,” Peck explained. “She is now the lifesaver, the insurance ward.”
The cancer treatment was not only taxing on him and his family. It was also expensive. He had already spent nearly $100,000 by the day he moved to California.
“Firemen don’t have $100,000 in their pocket,” he said.
After four months of radiation and chemotherapy in California, the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix acquired a special proton beam radiation machine that allowed Peck and his family to return to Arizona. It meant seeing his girls every day and being around his firefighting family.
Peck described unwavering support throughout his nearly four-year battle with cancer. Members of the fire service from across the state helped with financial and emotional support. Some even went as far as being by his side during treatment.
“The nurses would swim through firemen to come treat me,” Peck remembered.
Peck said he was forced into retirement after his cancer diagnosis. That, he said, was one of the hardest things to accept.
“I grew up with a fire family. My uncles are firefighters. I’ve always wanted to be a fireman,” he said.
Being out of a job also meant no benefits to cover Peck and his family. He filed four claims for workers’ compensation. All were denied. Each time, the city of Goodyear rejected his allegation that he contracted cancer doing his job. Peck believed he had occupational cancer.
“They gave me part of my retirement that I paid into, cash. But it doesn’t even cover my medical bills,” he added. “We’re in this big financial break, where we’re swimming. trying to figure out where we’re going, while continuing treatment.”
He underwent nine rounds of chemotherapy.
The battle against SNUC cancer is nothing compared to the fight over industrial health coverage, he said.
“It’s terrible to say, but that’s the truth,” explained Peck.
SNUC cancer is not on the list of nearly 20 cancers listed under House Bill 2161.
In 2017, the bill amended A.R.S. 23-901, related to workers’ compensation. It broadened to allow more than a dozen additional cancers to be considered as a presumed occupational disease.
Prior to 2017, Arizona’s cancer presumptive statute covered only seven types of cancer, including cancer of the brain, bladder or colon. The expanded law now includes prostate, skin and lung cancers, among others.
Under the law, firefighters that contract these cancers while on the job could be considered covered for compensation, because they were deemed to arise out of employment with proof.
Once diagnosed with a “presumptive cancer” named within the legislation, firefighters can file a workers’ compensation claim. The employer then allows an insurance company to handle the claim.
Peck told KTAR News his cancer isn’t listed in the law because it is so rare, but two others in the law should have applied to him: pharynx cancer and adenocarcinoma.
“I had a tumor in my pharynx. How is that not related to pharynx cancer?” he questioned. “It also mirrors adenocarcinoma, but it’s just not called the same thing.”
He explained six doctors from out of state and here in Arizona have told him his cancer, SNUC, is directly related to adenocarcinoma and pharynx cancer.
Those doctors’ medical opinions and written support have not been enough to support Peck’s claim to be covered for workers’ compensation based on the presumptive cancer law.
He believed the independent medical examiner, Dr. Jason Salganick, hired by CopperPoint Insurance Companies, was not thorough enough to reach his conclusion that Peck did not have occupational cancer.
“I saw him for about five minutes,” Peck said, referring to Salganick. “He didn’t even touch me, and in his report, he openly said, ‘I’ve never heard of this cancer, and I have no idea how he got it, or how to treat it.’”
Peck presented one of his own doctors’ medical findings that concluded his cancer was from carcinogens and exposures in the fire department. “It was like they didn’t even look at the report,” he said.
Salganick is an oncologist specialist in the Valley.
“For some reason, everyone gets the same independent medical examiner,” Peck said.
He questioned whether the insurance company works with Salganick with the intent to deny their claims.
KTAR News contacted Dr. Salganick’s office in hopes of finding out more about his role as an independent medical examiner hired by different cities and insurance companies, but they declined to comment. The office said his independent medical examiner work is separate from his practice.
KTAR News also reached out to Salganick on social media on multiple occasions, but our requests were never answered.
The city of Goodyear, Peck’s employer when he was a firefighter, contracts with CopperPoint Insurance Companies to handle workers’ compensation claims.
“The city’s contract with CopperPoint requires them to follow all laws and regulations, which also includes HB 2161 for all claims received after its passage in 2017,” a Goodyear spokesperson said in a statement to KTAR News.
When asked for comment, CopperPoint Insurance Companies provided the following statement:
CopperPoint cannot speak to individual claims, but as to firefighter claims in general, CopperPoint assesses the facts and circumstances of each claim to determine whether an injury or illness is work-related. CopperPoint has accepted firefighter cancer claims that are work-related and continues to pay medical and indemnity benefits on those claims.
Before his cancer fight, Peck and his family were in a sound financial state. They had paid off their debts and were about to build their dream home. In almost an instant, that all changed. They had to sell as many of their possessions as they could to pay for medications and treatment.
Besides fighting his case for workers’ compensation, he and his family battled roadblocks with his own medical insurance company.
“That’s what my wife does, every day, waits on hold for hours [with the insurance company],” he said.
Despite the struggle Peck and his family have endured on all fronts, he is grateful for the support they received from those around them.
“As a fireman, you don’t want to be the guy that takes the help. You want to be the one that gives it,” he said.
At the time of the interview with KTAR News in early August, Peck had no more avenues for appeal with the city of Goodyear. His message for the city is to get on board with helping the people that work for them.
“Breaking that bureaucracy of what the city just follows, because they’re hands-off, because they use an insurance company, we need to fight back,” Peck added.
His family shared with KTAR News his last wishes on how to celebrate his life. In his own writing, he instructed:
Donations can be made to the Peck family on GoFundMe.
KTAR News 92.3 FM has investigated the continuing pattern of Valley firefighters being denied workers’ compensation coverage when diagnosed with cancer. This series, continuing next week, will tell the story of four firefighters and the process of their claims being denied.