All in the Family: Jack Waller’s Fire Service Support System “B rotherhood” is a term that pulls its weight in the fire service. Among shifts, pushing throughout the station, into the department and out into the state as a whole, the family that is the fire service ties its members in through the job’s passion, dedication and loyalty. This is something Jack Waller witnessed first hand when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2014 at the age of 49. Waller had been positioned at the South King County Training Consortium as a Captain for only a handful of months when he received his diagnosis. When talking about his health verdict, he lists off more than a dozen names of fellow servicemen and women that took him in as their own. “They just bear-hugged me, they treated me like family and I think that was huge in my ultimate positive outcome,” says Waller, who is in his second year of remission. “I got lucky that I got a cancer I could get rid of but I think that having them working with me—that support—was crucial for me and was a positive part of the process.” Hodgkin’s lymphoma, like its sibling type non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is a cancer of the lymphatic system, a vital component of the defense of the immune system. Hodgkin’s causes abnormal cell growth in the lymphatic system and, as it progresses, compromises the body’s ability to fight off infection. For Waller, after finally coming to terms with the abnormalities occurring in his body, he spoke with his sister, a former oncology nurse. She insisted he see a specialist, as he was showing textbook symptoms for lymphoma, like unexpected weight loss and a persistent cough. “In the fire service historically, we’re all 10-feet-tall and bulletproof and nothing can happen to us,” Waller says. “So when goofy, funky things start happening to your body that we can’t explain, we deny it and try to explain it away. If something is happening to your body that you can’t explain, don’t wait, go to your doctor and don’t stop with your doctor until you get an answer.” Although this type of lymphoma is not on the RCW’s list of presumptive fire fighter cancers, it lists a primary cause as farm chemicals, something that Waller was exposed to growing up as a child and young adult in Eastern Washington as well as on the job. He plans to file an L&I claim over the diagnosis so the data is documented. “The more of us that come forward in this profession, at some point, there’s a tipping point where they’ll go ‘wow, there are 5,000 fire fighters who’ve got Hodgkin’s lymphoma.’” More common among people half his age, Waller’s diagnosis was a statistical oddity and struck a chord with his colleagues. “I was told there was a pretty sizable uptick in tenured people my age in the service that were going to the doctor for physicals,” he says. “If nothing else, it got people to go to the doctor.” Waller, now a Battalion Chief at the Tukwila Fire Department, understands that the change in policy, especially on a statewide level, will take both time and money. “You’re fighting 100 years of tradition unhampered by progress,” he says. “It’ll be gradual but our probationary fire fighters and the recruits that are coming in now won’t know any different. As time goes by, we advance technology and our understanding of the disease and how it’s affecting us as an occupation.” Cancer is an epidemic within this brotherhood of fire fighters, Waller insists as he counts the number of cancer-related funerals within the last few months. “Cancer is not discriminatory,” he says. “It’s not the 50-somethings or the 20-somethings in the service, it’s all of us. Any little thing, no matter how inconvenient it might be at the time, if it’s going to prevent you from what I had to go through and increase your quality of life when you retire, I’d have to say it’s worth it.” BY ERIN JAMES 2 3