Lung cancer patient
- Diagnosed with metastatic mucinous adenocarcinoma lung cancer in May 2015
- Receiving targeted therapy at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance
- Educates fellow firefighters on smoke and toxins exposure
- Lives life to the fullest and hopes to inspire other cancer patients to do the same
“Ask anybody who knows me: I’m the last person in the world you would’ve thought would get lung cancer.”
Fire captain Jim Brown had been working at the Olympia Fire Department for 23 years when he was first diagnosed with stage IV metastatic mucinous adenocarcinoma lung cancer in May 2015. Jim’s charmed life with his wife and three daughters came to a screeching halt with the shock of the diagnosis — after all, he had never been a smoker, and had been an accomplished endurance athlete all his life.
It turned out that Jim’s cancer was a result of having breathed in carcinogenic smoke and toxins along with dermal transmission through his gear while fighting fires.
Although each individual exposure was minimal, they added up over the years and led to the development of his cancer.
At his first meeting with an oncologist, Jim was told that the five-year survival rate for his cancer is 3 percent and the condition is considered to be incurable, or terminal. That’s when he decided to seek a different doctor for news that could give him hope.
After doing some research on Keith Eaton, MD, PhD, the clinical director of thoracic head and neck medical oncology at UW Medicine, Jim decided to seek treatment at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA).
“When someone gives you a death sentence,” says Jim, “you can either accept it and die or walk away and find someone who will fight for you.” He found that someone at SCCA.
“I want the biggest brains working on my case — they just happen to be really nice, too.”
Jim was drawn to Dr. Eaton, who has a cancer story of his own — and therefore, Jim believed, a level of empathy that other doctors just don’t have.
“When I go see Dr. Eaton and I’m anxious or worried, I know that he’s been through the same thing and he knows how I feel,” says Jim. “You’ve got to really go the extra mile to get to know your doctor — to get your doctor to invest himself in you — for your doctor to want you to survive as much as you want to survive. That’s what I’ve established with Dr. Eaton.”
When Jim talks about SCCA, he describes the many pleasant interactions and experiences he has had during his medical treatment. His loved ones fight over who gets to take Jim for treatment, he says, and they all speak extremely positively of the care he receives.
“Every single time I go to SCCA, I’m amazed at the kind interactions I have there,” says Jim. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever been through, and any time you’re in a situation where people can help make it less difficult is awesome.”
His tenacity has helped others to "hold fast."
“In the beginning when you’re in crisis and you’re facing mortality, it’s really scary,” says Jim. “You live from CAT scan to CAT scan. For me, after a while, things started going in a good direction — I stabilized, I gained confidence. But it made me look at what I put my time into, where I invest my energy.”
In 2015, when Jim was diagnosed, he created a blog in which he hoped to share his experience with cancer. One of his first posts included a picture of his “hold fast” tattoo. “It’s an old nautical term, meaning hang on to the line and hang on tight,” Jim explains. “When my father passed away in 2011, I got ‘hold fast’ tattooed on my knuckles. It’s a daily reminder to me to persevere, keep my chin up and grind it out.”
This message isn’t just for fellow firefighters or others with cancer; it’s for anyone struggling with anything. “It took on a life of its own and it became my battle cry,” says Jim. “When people see me or contact me, ‘hold fast’ is always part of the conversation. It means people are thinking of me and supporting me and they’re aware of our situation.” “Hold fast” became his battle cry — and he needed it.
“My intent is to keep getting up every day, keep beating cancer, and keep living life as fully as I can.”
Not long ago, Jim climbed Mount Ellinor for his birthday with a buddy. When they arrived at the summit, there was only one other person up there — and it happened to be a woman with stage IV breast cancer.
This is what Jim calls a purposeful appointment. He recalls that they shared a hug and a beautiful moment together because they had both felt so inspired to find one another there: on top of a mountain, fighting with cancer and not allowing the struggle to overcome them.
This story demonstrates the way Jim continues to cope with his cancer — by persevering and doing the things that he loves.
“The world doesn’t stop because you get cancer,” says Jim. “I have three daughters, a wife and a career. You throw this on top of it, but you don’t quit.”
Taking on a new fight to protect his fellow firefighters from cancer
Once Jim processed his shock at having lung cancer, he decided he wanted to do whatever he could to prevent what happened to him from happening to others.
Today, Jim advocates for new best practices for fire departments under “Healthy In, Healthy Out,” a Washington state manual to reduce firefighters’ risk from carcinogens by limiting their exposure to smoke and toxins, even after a fire is out.
At Jim’s department, every firefighter has two sets of gear, so at least one stays clean at all times. Other steps include having firefighters clean off thoroughly at fire sites and sealing smoke-exposed suits in a bag kept separate from the truck’s passenger cab.
“This was not tasked upon him because he has cancer; this is true to Jim’s spirit,” said Captain Kevin Bossard, assistant fire marshal for the Olympia Fire Department. “He does not want this to happen to any of his sisters or brothers here or anywhere else, and that’s what drives him.”
Looking out for others comes naturally to Jim, and it’s this attitude that has touched the hearts of thousands within his community.
In April 2017, Jim’s scans showed incremental growth in his lymph nodes. His cancer cells were tested and determined to have a ROS1 mutation. There is a targeted therapy for this mutation that is essentially an oral form of chemotherapy designed specifically to interrupt the ROS1 driver for his cancer. Today, he continues to be minimalized and stable.
Meanwhile, Jim is keeping busy. He has been accepted into a program known as A Fresh Chapter, an organization that organizes trips for cancer survivors and patients to do international volunteering. In November 2018, Jim will be traveling to Lima, Peru, to volunteer at a school with other cancer patients in an effort work towards something bigger than his own cancer.
With the help of his community, and his SCCA family, Jim is holding fast. “I have teams of amazing providers working hard to keep me alive, and there are great treatment options on the horizon,” he says. “I am hopeful.”