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 firemen 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. But nobody thinks they’re going to get cancer, not at 37 years old.

I wore tank tops and board shorts to the beach; I wasn’t sunbathing in a bikini. But I have stage three melanoma.

Firefighters are 1.31 times more likely to get melanoma than the general population. They aren’t sure exactly why, yet, but it’s part of the general risk of cancer in this job. Firefighters are nine percent more likely to be diagnosed with cancer and 14 percent more likely to pass away from cancer.

I was a completely healthy active firefighter with the Wellesley Fire Department when I took part in a free skin check offered at a Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts educational conference.

“I wore tank tops and board shorts to the beach; I wasn’t sunbathing in a bikini. But I have stage three melanoma.”

They found a spot on my back and told me to keep an eye on it, so I asked my doctor to biopsy it at my physical several months later. It 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’m six months into treatment, and it’s not easy, but I’m determined to have a positive attitude. I’m organizing a fundraiser at the firehouse in Wellesley and we’re going to shave our heads — I can’t wait to have a wiffle and not see the hair falling out in my sink anymore!

I still visit the firehouse two to three times a week, and my goal is to do something — whether for myself or someone else — every day, no matter how lousy I feel. Interaction is really important.

Sometimes we think we shouldn’t reach out to people when they’re going through hard times, like we’re bothering them, but it really does help. It actually makes a difference to know that someone is putting themselves out there to tell me that they care about me and are thinking about me.

And when it comes to your medical care, you have 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

  • no early symptoms
  • caught by a free skin check provided at educational conference for firefighters