In June, Jon Stewart stood by his friend Luis Alvarez as the retired New York City bomb-squad detective, gaunt from cancer linked to his work as a 9/11 first responder, testified before Congress to extend funding for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.
Shortly afterward, Stewart lambasted the lawmakers in a fiery and tearful speech for the delay in approving the funding so badly needed by the sick and dying first responders. He had championed the legislation for years alongside other sick first responders — firefighters, police and construction workers with cancers, lung diseases and other health problems linked to 9/11.
Alvarez, 53, died just a little more than two weeks later, from complications of colorectal cancer linked to the toxins created after the attacks. By late July, permanent funding for the VCF was signed into law.
But Stewart, 56, is not done fighting for people exposed to the toxic fumes and dust of 9/11, which the head of the EPA at the time said was safe to breathe.
On Monday night, Stewart appeared before a packed auditorium at Borough of Manhattan Community College, in the shadow of the World Trade Center, and made an emotional appeal to the hundreds of thousands who lived, worked or attended school in lower Manhattan at the time.
They too, he said, should apply for 9/11 medical care and funds, through the World Trade Center Health Program and the Victims Compensation Fund.
“Please, I urge you to access the programs that exist to help you,” said Stewart.
“The first thing I hear from the non-first responder community in Lower Manhattan is that I am sick but I am not a first responder, I just live here, I just went to school here,” said Stewart, who had resided in the area when the attacks occurred.
“In the days and weeks and months following, it was for many of us a tomb,” he said, “and I don’t think any of us will forget the smell and the fires.”
For months after the towers collapsed, people were exposed to carcinogenic substances such as asbestos and components of jet fuel in the dust and air as well as fumes from the fires burning at the site, Dr. Michael Crane, medical director of the World Trade Center Health Program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in Manhattan, previously told PEOPLE.
On Monday night, Stewart appeared with first responder and activist John Feal, who said that while four out of five first responders have signed up for the WTC Health Program, just one in 15 “survivors” (those who lived, worked or attended school in the Ground Zero area) have enrolled.
Feal ribbed Stewart for not yet enrolling.
“In my defense,” said Stewart, “as a Jew, I have felt sick for many years. I’ve been blessed to have wonderful health resources and insurance and I feel…”
Feal interrupted Stewart. “Just imagine if Jon Stewart signed up and let everybody know he was in the program, how many people would follow?”
According to lawyer Michael Barasch of Barasch & McGarry, which represents over 15,000 in the 9/11 community, “Not a day goes by without one of our clients dying.”
The firm represents 37 men who were first responders or worked in the area and now have breast cancer. One is Jeff Flynn, a former Goldman Sachs staffer who noticed a small lump on his chest in 2012 and didn’t give it much thought.
More than six months later, Flynn’s wife noticed that his left nipple was inverted. He went to a doctor to check it out and was shocked by the diagnosis: breast cancer.
“I didn’t even know males could get breast cancer,” Flynn tells PEOPLE. “I was very ignorant of the disease.”
Flynn, 66, of East Meadow, New York, was mystified about what could have caused the Stage 3 cancer, which spread to his lymph nodes. There was no family history and he was negative for the BRCA gene, known as the breast cancer gene. And less than one in 1,000 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
Then colleagues told him the cancer could be connected to time he spent after the attacks working for Goldman Sachs, assisting clients near the World Trade Center with getting their businesses up and running again.
“I was down there for the 90 days when the pile [of the towers] burned, and for a year after 9/11,” says Flynn, who had surgery and chemotherapy after his diagnosis. Three years ago the cancer returned to his lymph nodes; side effects from the chemotherapy medication he continues to take forced him to retire.
A week after 9/11, Christine Todd Whitman, then the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said the air in New York was safe. In 2016, she admitted she was wrong.
“I have a degree of anger about it, it was obviously not true,” says Flynn, who has received money from the Victim Compensation Fund. “I can’t see how anyone in their right mind, taking air samples, could have said that. And now there are tens of thousands of people sick.”