Treatment program for first responders offers hope for group at high-risk for cancer

Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center research finds 2 out of every 3 firefighters will be diagnosed with cancer

PUTNAM COUNTY, Fla. – First responders, particularly firefighters, are at a higher risk of getting cancer because of what they can be exposed to while doing their jobs.

Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center has a special program that helps them navigate treatment. So far, 21 first responders have gone through the program since it started less than two years ago.

Brooke Westerhoff has a lot of titles to list. She is a firefighter and EMT with Putnam County Fire Rescue, and a newlywed. Westerhoff is also a cancer survivor.

“It is a second chance at life because I look at everything differently now,” Westerhoff said.

Westerhoff has been cancer-free for 10 months now.

She was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkins Lymphoma in July 2021 while planning her wedding.

“I had also lost 40 pounds in two months without trying,” Westerhoff said about some of her symptoms. “I had night sweats. I had fevers that I did not know were fevers at the time.”

That diagnosis led to a rigorous six months of chemotherapy.

Westerhoff’s last day of treatment was on Feb. 7.

Fellow firefighters from Putnam County and dozens of other first responders around the area celebrated that milestone with her that day.

It was a moment doctors at Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center hope many others like Westerhoff will have thanks to its First Responders Program.

“When I started, I was in the dark. I had no idea what was going to happen,” Westerhoff said of battling cancer. “No one close to me had ever gone through chemo treatment, so I did not know what to expect.”

Westerhoff did not go through the First Responders Program but quickly became an advocate for it as she learned more about it during her own journey.

“It just makes us feel better knowing that if we were to ever get into one of the worst scenarios of our lives, we have people there to back us up and to help us through step-by-step,” Westerhoff said of the program.

The vice president of the cancer center, Dr. LeeAnn Mengel, said the program caters to first responders because there is more intense screening needed for them since they are at higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer.

“They have exposure to the skin and to their lungs,” Mengel said. “It is more than your average person.”

According to the research done at Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center, two out of every three firefighters will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes.

Firefighters are 9% more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than the general public. They are 14% more likely to die from the disease.

The program trains doctors to look into how they can personalize care for first responders and address their occupational needs.

“People are warriors, not to overuse that term,” Mengel said. “It is the fight that they are going to keep working. They signed up to be a firefighter or a first responder, and they keep going. They do not stop.”

Westerhoff feels like she is slowly but surely returning to her old self.

“I was always tired and always felt sick,” she said. “Now I feel like I did when I was 18.”

She is back fighting fires and being there when someone needs help.

Services for the First Responders Program are offered to 12 counties in the state, including many in Northeast Florida.

Moving forward, doctors at Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center are working to stretch their services to three more counties in the state soon and plan to expand into Georgia.

About the Authors:

Brie Isom joined the News4JAX team in January 2021 after spending three years covering news in South Bend, Indiana.