From fighting fires to fighting for her life
Early detection allows doctors to extinguish Sue Horton’s breast cancer.
Wesley Roberts Published: 11/30/2018
Sue Horton, known for her contagious smile, uplifting spirit and vibrant personality, is always on the go. Finding time for her annual mammogram, between fighting fires and taking care of her grand kids, wasn’t easy, to be sure. But it turned out to be the key to her survival.
Despite having no history of breast cancer in her family, she knew it was important to get checked once a year and has always encouraged other women to do the same.
“I have friends who haven’t had a mammogram in years. They’re scared of the unknown,” Horton said. “I always think knowing and having the opportunity to fight breast cancer is so much better than not knowing.”
Horton was diagnosed with ducal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) in September 2018. Her drive for being a strong firefighter is where she found the strength to fight breast cancer.
Horton has always chased big dreams and opportunities, just like her mother, Angela . Her family moved from Trinidad to New York City in 1994. She worked as an emergency medical technician (EMT) prior to becoming a firefighter in 2010. Someone at her church wanted to recruit her husband, Alton, for the fire department and she thought, “I can do this just as well as my husband could.”
While he stayed in his current career, she was the one to take the leap. She was thrilled to be offered a job as a firefighter with the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department (JFRD).
“It wasn’t easy being one of the few women at my station,” said Horton, thinking back to her first months on the job. “It was a big transition and, to be honest, I struggled.”
She fought every day to prove herself as a firefighter – for herself, for other women in the industry and for her work family at Fire Station 62 in Mandarin.
Caring about carcinogens
Horton is thankful for the leaders at her station and their proactive efforts to minimize risks in the sometimes-dangerous profession, while supporting her during her cancer treatment. She credits JFRD Chief Kurtis Wilson with making significant changes.
“We remove our contaminated gear as soon as possible to reduce exposure to carcinogens that can cause cancer. Contaminated gear is not allowed in the station anymore,” said Horton.
In July, a new law was signed requiring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to develop and maintain a registry to collect data on firefighters with cancer. The hope is that this will lead researchers to better understand the impact of smoke inhalation and other job-related dangers that may lead to cancer.
Horton said there are many firefighter cancer support networks. She recently submitted her information and is waiting to be paired up with someone else facing a similar experience.
“When we catch breast cancer in the precancerous or early stages, we have a very high chance of curing the disease,” said Jennifer Crozier, MD, hematologist oncologist at Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center. "From office building insulation to firefighting equipment, carcinogens are all around you so even if no one in your family has had breast cancer or any type of cancer, you should still see your doctor and keep up with your screenings and/or mammograms."
‘I’ve always been a fighter’
Being a female in a male-dominated industry, Horton knew she had to work as hard as she could every single day. She fought to belong, to save lives and to be a part of something bigger than herself. She faced hardship as she moved to the new career of firefighting but she is thankful every day for the opportunity.
Her favorite part about her job is the people who cross her life and encourage her along the way.
“At first, I thought being a firefighter was the hardest thing in the world. And don’t get me wrong – it is challenging,” said Horton. “But because of cancer, I know what it is like to fight for your life.”
Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center is embarking on a fundraising campaign to purchase a mobile mammography bus for the Jacksonville area, bringing mammography and screening services to convenient locations for busy women like Horton. To learn more about breast health services, visit baptistjax.com/breast-health.