Carol Hall had only been cancer free for a few months when she discovered that her triple-negative breast cancer had come back in a different location.
After undergoing months of vigorous chemotherapy and a double mastectomy, she thought she would have more time before the cancer recurred. The rapid turnaround was tough to swallow.
“It’s a cancer that tends to always reoccur, so this is a little early in my thoughts that it would recur, but that was just positive thinking on my part,” she said.
Hall surveyed meeting space at South Gulf Fire Rescue’s Fire Station 2, where clad in matching T-shirts, the department’s women volunteers, along with Hall’s husband Joe and South Gulf’s Fire Chief Mike Barrett, had gathered in a circular formation to listen, to support, to share and to learn.
Each year in the United States, about 264,000 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in women and about 2,400 in men, making it the most commonly diagnosed type of cancer in the country.
Each of those gathered had been impacted by the disease personally. Some were survivors themselves. Some had lost loved ones. Some were diligently tracking family histories.
Hall had just joined the 501c-3 board at SGFR a few months prior to her re-diagnosis. She said there, and in the greater Gulf County community, she has found some of her strongest supporters.
“I had volunteered to be on the board here, and I kind of had to explain to everyone that I’m going to do the very best that I can to help out in any way I can — my neighbors, the fire department — but I have to deal with some physical health issues first,” she said.
“This recurs often. So I’ll just keep fighting, and these people will just keep fighting with me.”
Fire departments across the country often take active roles in promoting the education and treatment of breast cancer and other cancers.
Cancer is the leading cause of death among U.S. firefighters, with around 68% of those in the fire service developing some form of cancer in their lifetimes.
And though research is limited, as an increasing number of women have joined ranks within U.S. fire departments, studies have shown that women and men in the fire service are at an elevated risk of developing cancer.
In 2020, the Women Firefighters Biomonitoring Collaborative collected biospecimens and interview data from 80 women firefighters and 80 women office workers from San Francisco, revealing that firefighters may be at an increased risk for developing breast cancer due to exposure to higher levels of certain toxic PFAS chemicals.
With October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, several of those gathered discussed ways in which South Gulf could take an active role in helping educate the community about breast cancer and its impacts locally.
Lynda White, a breast cancer survivor herself, voiced that among the most important facts to educate the public on is that while modern medicine has allowed for the discovery of certain genes which may make one more likely to contract breast cancer, it is not the only explanation for the disease’s development.
“It’s become even more important to me because now I hear so many people say ‘well, I got tested for the BRCA gene, one or two, and I’m good. I’m negative, so I don’t have to worry about it anymore,’” White said. “I’m the fourth generation of my family to have it. I’m the only one to survive. My mother and my sister both died. And I have twin girls. And when they were 36, they both opted to have prophylactic mastectomies because they didn’t want to wait around for it. And they were both tested for the gene, and they are negative.”
“Both of their oncologists and surgeons said ‘this just proves that there’s more out there that we can’t test for yet.’”
Other important aspects of breast cancer education include informing locals about which resources are available to them here in the communities and which are not.
Studies have shown that cancer mortality rates are higher in rural areas, where lower access to healthcare and higher rates of poverty lead to difficulties in accessing treatments.
A 2017 CDC study also states that the reduction in cancer death rates is happening more slowly in rural America, where cancer mortality rates decreased by about one percent per year, and urban America, where mortality rates decreased by about 1.6 percent per year.
But while resources in Gulf County may be more limited than in other areas, there are still services available to locals.
The Florida Department of Health in Gulf County offers breast and cervical cancer screenings, which may be free or low cost for those who meet program eligibility requirements.
“It’s very important for women to be tested regularly — have regular mammograms and perform regular breast exams,” said Sara Freer.
“Even in younger women,” said Jean Treadaway, who lost her stepdaughter to breast cancer. “It’s best to know what’s going on as early as possible.”
The group encouraged those who wish to make donations to breast cancer education and support to research the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation.