Joanie Cullinan, diagnosed at 37

I became a firefighter because I love the camaraderie and the sense of family — and I’m a bit of a thrill seeker and love that it is a career where no two days are the same.

We learned about firefighters having a higher risk of developing cancer at The Academy. It’s not a secret, but I never imagined I’d be an expert on it and be able to spout stats at people. Nobody thinks they’re going to get cancer, not at 37 years-old.

Firefighters are 131% more likely to get melanoma than the general population. They aren’t sure exactly why, probably because of the toxins being absorbed through the skin, but it’s part of the general risk of cancer in this job. Firefighters are 9% more likely to be diagnosed with cancer and 14% more likely to die from cancer.

Nobody thinks they’re going to get cancer, not at 37 years-old.

It turns out that I was having symptoms but I didn’t know that they were symptoms. I didn’t have my normal energy and couldn’t keep up my activity level. I was skiing out west and couldn’t put in a full day, which was very unlike me. I was going to bed every night at 8:00. I was just really tired and I thought, I am getting older.

I also had a bump in my groin area that I mistakenly thought was an injury from exercise. I thought it was a ligament or something. It turns out that it was another sign. It was a swollen lymph node.

At a firefighters’ conference they were offering a free skin check. I really didn’t want to have one, didn’t think it was necessary, but the guy I was with really encouraged me. I decided to go ahead. Thank God I did. It was through the skin check that I learned I had a spot on my back. The doctor there took a picture of it with my phone, and told me to follow up with my doctor.

At my physical a few months later, I showed it to my primary care doctor. She said it needed to be biopsied and that I should schedule an appointment. I told her I wanted to have it done that day and she agreed to set that up. The biopsy came back as malignant melanoma.

I had surgery to remove the tumor and to take a lymph node biopsy, where they found that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. At this point, the doctors diagnosed me as a stage three patient and gave me two options for treatment: immunotherapy or targeted oral chemotherapy. I decided on the chemotherapy route because I wanted to be able to return to the job, and that gave me the best chance of doing that.

I have learned that when  it comes to your medical care, pay attention to the signs your body is giving you and don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself. I had to push my doctor to do a same-day biopsy on the spot on my back. And I hadn’t been to the dermatologist in more than a decade, so that free skin check saved my life. Go to the doctor and get your skin checked, because early detection saves lives.

Symptoms

  • lack of energy
  • fatigue
  • lump in groin
  • spot on back caught at a free skin check provided at educational conference for firefighters