At only 23 years old, Brooke Westerhoff thought the biggest challenge she was going to face was deciding which wedding dress to wear on her special day. As a firefighter/emergency medical technician (EMT) for Putnam County Fire Rescue, she was excited to swap her bunker gear for a beautiful white gown.
Westerhoff worked as an EMT in her local hospital’s emergency room for three years before transitioning to the fire service, where she met her best friend and now-husband, Joel, a firefighter/EMT for the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department. The couple has been together for four years and recently celebrated their first wedding anniversary.
As a first responder, Westerhoff gears up to secure the safety of fellow citizens by responding to fires, medical emergencies and other calls to protect life and property. She never imagined her biggest fire to fight would be a cancer diagnosis.
In the months leading up to her 2021 wedding, Westerhoff began experiencing unusual symptoms, including swollen lymph nodes and sudden weight loss. She brushed them aside thinking it was stress.
“This went on for about eight or nine months, and I just kept putting it off because I was 23 years old,” said now-24-year-old Westerhoff. “I was like, ‘There’s no way I have cancer.’ That was the last thing on my mind.”
While trying on wedding dresses, Westerhoff noticed how large and swollen her lymph nodes had become. Looking in the mirror, she could no longer see her neck.
At her mother’s urging, Westerhoff went to the doctor, who ordered an MRI. The scan revealed tumors from her neck all the way down to her groin.
That summer, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer that affects the body’s germ-fighting immune system.
Extinguishing cancer, together
For the next six months, Westerhoff went to chemotherapy appointments at Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center every two weeks, totaling 12 treatments. Her work family ensured she could take time off from the job.
“All of my brothers and sisters at Putnam County Fire and Rescue donated as much sick leave as I needed,” said Westerhoff. “I will never be able to repay them.”
Edward Gorak, DO, a hematologist/oncologist at Baptist MD Anderson, was her primary physician.
“Brooke’s case was a complicated one, but throughout her entire treatment, she stayed positive and motivated to never stop working as a firefighter,” said Dr. Gorak. “In terms of her work schedule, her fire station serves as an example as to how important a role the employer can play in an employee’s health.”
Rallying for first responders
Westerhoff learned about Baptist MD Anderson’s First Responders Program, where the center's multi-disciplinary team collaborates with local fire departments and associations to ensure those undergoing treatment receive education, key contacts, additional resources and benefits information.
“Programs like this are important because being a firefighter and you’re exposed to harmful chemicals and extreme environments with carcinogens and smoke,” said Westerhoff. “Knowing you have a program like this to help you in case a situation arises is great.”
“It raises awareness on both ends,” said Joel Westerhoff. “Baptist MD Anderson understands more of what first responders go through, and we’re more aware of the programs available to us. We both benefit from the shared experiences.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cancer is a leading cause of death among firefighters. Research suggests firefighters are at higher risk for certain types of cancers compared to the general population.
As a U.S. Navy veteran, Subrato J. Deb, MD, chief of Thoracic Surgical Oncology at Baptist MD Anderson, uses his experience in the armed forces to serve as the program’s physician leader.
“Our first responders deserve exceptional cancer care. That’s what makes this program so important,” he said. “This program allows us an opportunity to reciprocate compassion and care to our first responders who take care of us every day.”
Joel Westerhoff told Brooke he’d be working during her last chemotherapy appointment, so he would be unable to be there with her. She thought the highlight of her day would be ringing the bell to celebrate, but both of their fire departments had a special surprise.
Brooke Westerhoff stepped off the elevator and looked out to see nearly 150 firefighters in the Baptist MD Anderson lobby, including her husband, holding signs and clapping. She immediately began to sob.
“Knowing my husband was there with all of our friends, all my brothers and sisters from our departments, it was just crazy to see all those people there to support me,” said Westerhoff. “One of the biggest moments of my life.”