Days after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Nicole Stanley—a lieutenant/paramedic with the Mashpee Fire Department—was rumbling through the hills of Vermont on her Harley-Davidson.
“Wind therapy,” she called it.
The ensuing months of treatment would include 16 weeks of chemotherapy and a bilateral mastectomy. Lt. Stanley described having “cancer-brain” or “chemo-brain,” the feeling of “a thousand ping-pong balls bouncing in my brain that won’t stop.”
“There were times when I didn’t think I was going to make it,” she said.
Now, nearly a year after her diagnosis, doctors have told Lt. Stanley, “no carcinoma detected.”
She has returned to her cross-fit workouts, has another motorcycle trip planned for this fall, and come September, the Mashpee firefighter of 28 years plans to return to her job.
“I miss it, I miss my job, I miss my firefighter family, I miss helping people,” Lt. Stanley said. “That’s the goal, getting back to work.”
Among her fellow firefighters, Lt. Stanley—the department’s only female firefighter—is “kind of like a den mother” and other firefighters look up to her, Mashpee Fire Chief Thomas C. Rullo said.
“I’m happy to get her back,” Chief Rullo said. “As soon as she’s certified, fit, and ready to go.”
When he first heard that Lt. Stanley had breast cancer, “My heart just dropped,” he said.
But, as far as a firefighter developing cancer, “I’m not surprised somebody got it,” Chief Rullo said.
For firefighters, whose job includes entering buildings where burning materials often release dangerous cancer-causing chemicals known as carcinogens, cancer is an occupational hazard.
“We know there are a lot of hidden risks,” Chief Rullo said. “The job has a lot of risk associated with it.”
Compared to the general US population, firefighters face a 9 percent increase in cancer diagnoses and a 14 percent increase in cancer-related deaths, according to The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
With no family history of cancer and a healthy lifestyle, Lt. Stanley said her oncologist told her that years of exposure to carcinogens while on the job as a firefighter was a definite contributing factor in her diagnosis.
“We’re losing firefighters every year because of cancer,” Lt. Stanley said.
“It’s an eye-opener for my department,” she said of her own diagnosis. “It happened to us.”
The lieutenant learned of her diagnosis in August of last year. She had discovered a lump during a self-examination some days earlier but a voicemail on her phone one evening confirmed what she already feared: she had cancer.
“It’s a difficult feeling to explain but when you’re told you have cancer your life just starts to spiral,” Ms. Stanley said.
“It’s just a whole different world and people who haven’t had cancer just don’t know,” she said. “It just consumes your whole life.”
Through the chemotherapy and surgery, Lt. Stanley relied on her friends and family for support.
Upon receiving her diagnosis, Lt. Stanley turned for advice to a Dennis firefighter who had fought cancer. She gathered notes and letters from her friends at the fire department, gym, and motorcycle crew on what she called “my wall of strength.”
Seeing those notes, “just gives me inspiration everyday,” she said. “Nobody can do this alone.”
Two weeks after her first chemotherapy treatment, when her hair began to fall out, Lt. Stanley said she felt like “I’m losing the battle.”
“I sat in the tub just watching my hair fall out,” she said, “and it hurt.”
That day, a friend who had battled cancer 12 years ago, “was my pillar of strength,” Lt. Stanley said. With the support of her friend, Lt. Stanley shaved her head amid tears and emotion.
“That morning the cancer had taken control,” Lt. Stanley said. “That night, when I shaved my head, I took control.”
Since being diagnosed with breast cancer, Lt. Stanley has become an advocate for prevention and has worked with the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition to spread information and awareness.
“I chose to be very open and public about my battle,” she said. “It’s a journey that I don’t want anyone else to take.”
Lt. Stanley has spoken at MBCC events and led two walks for the group in 2019.
On Saturday at 8 AM, she will lead a fundraising walk at Nickerson State Park in Brewster for MBCC.
The walk seeks to honor firefighters who “risk their lives every day to keep us all safe” and whose “health risks are compounded by long-term exposure to carcinogens found in flame retardants and other chemicals used in fire-fighting,” a press release for the event stated.
“The carcinogens out there aren’t going away, we’ve got to protect ourselves even more,” Lt. Stanley said.
Over her 28 years at the Mashpee fire department, Lt. Stanley said she has seen procedures change as research has revealed a link between firefighting, exposure to carcinogens, and cancer.
“I remember years ago, the whole firehouse would smell of fire, all that soot and carcinogens were still on the gear,” she said.
One of the final phases of firefighting—the overhaul phase where firefighters open walls, ceilings, and partitions to check for remaining signs of fire—has especially changed, she said.
“Back in the day it was a cool thing to have soot on your face, to take your mask off” during the overhaul phase, she said. Now, firefighters keep their masks and airpacks on through the whole process.
Chief Rullo agreed that firefighting has changed over the years. “The fire service is constantly adapting and changing,” he said.
“I’ve told [Mashpee firefighters] that they're going to wear their airpacks through the whole overhaul phase,” the Mashpee fire chief said.
He said wearing the heavy airpacks may tire out firefighters more quickly but its an important safety measure since, “We’re disturbing all that stuff and it’s all flying through the air microscopically.”
Lt. Stanley described firefighting as “a scary job” but also as her “calling.”
“I need to get back to work, I don’t have purpose anymore,” she said.
She is still dealing, she said, with the lingering effects of the chemotherapy treatment.
“When you go through cancer and you go through treatment, you never really return to normal,” she said.
As she returns to her cross-fit workouts and looks forward to her return to the Mashpee Fire Department, Lt. Stanley acknowledges that her life will be different but hopes to find a “new normal,” she said.
She doesn’t know what challenges the coming years could bring for her firefighting career but, when it comes time for her to retire, “It’ll be my choice to retire,” she said, “not cancer’s.”