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Back on the job: GVFD cancer survivor wants to save other rescuers

Every three weeks for 18 weeks, Annette Poole-Kelley watched five poisons flow into her veins, one after the other.

She was diagnosed with stage four Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma on Nov. 18, 2015, and the disease had spread from her lymph nodes to her pancreas. Doctors decided to be as aggressive as the cancer.

Poole-Kelley couldn’t help but marvel at the irony. She washes her hands before and after using the restroom. She doesn’t drink, smoke or use illegal drugs. She eats health food and works out. Yet cancer had still managed to invade her body.

Now, she was purposely poisoning herself.

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The worst of the chemotherapy drugs was called the Red Devil. But Poole-Kelley, a firefighter and EMT with Green Valley Fire District, said she had God on her side.

She remembers laying in bed pondering the future of her hair when her pastor’s wife sent her a text — Psalm 62:7: “In God is my salvation and my glory: the rock of my strength, and my refuge, is in God.”

“Ever since then I never thought about my hair and I was never fearful,” she said. “I had complete peace. Sure, it was scary, but I never had a fearful outlook.”

She had plenty of others in her corner as well — firefighters from all over Southern Arizona, her family and church family.

When Poole-Kelley lost her hair, dozens shaved their heads to honor her. They packed the waiting room when she had a tumor removed and she never went through a chemo session alone. Her colleagues donated 1,346 hours after her sick, vacation and short-term disability ran out.

There were emails, phone calls and dinner invitations.

And when she finally returned to work cancer-free on Nov. 18, 2016 — exactly one year after her diagnosis — they welcomed her back with open arms.

She still tears up when she talks about all of those who surrounded her with so much love.

“It was very humbling,” Poole-Kelley said.

The fact the firefighters were willing to donate hours they could have spent with their own families “just blows my mind and touches my heart,” Poole-Kelley.

Her personal battle with cancer may no longer be evident — her hair has grown back, she’s regained her strength and she no longer suffers from the muddled-thinking common with chemotherapy — but Poole-Kelley, 50, plans to continue waging war against the disease.

Work related?

While there’s no way to be sure, Poole-Kelley is convinced her cancer is work-related.

Multiple studies have shown firefighters are more likely than the general public to get Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, testicular cancer, multiple myeloma, skin cancer, prostate cancer, malignant melanoma, brain cancer, colon cancer, leukemia and breast cancer.

According to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, carcinogens not only enter the bodies of firefighters through their lungs, but through the skin, studies show. Skin’s permeability increases with temperature and for every 5 degree increase in skin temperature, absorption increases 400 percent.

Poole-Kelley spends a great deal of her time now reading studies about cancer among firefighters and attending training sessions.

While Green Valley Fire District firefighters do an excellent job taking what precautions they can, Poole-Kelley said she would like to speak with other firefighters about what they can do to protect themselves. She also wants to let the community know about the risks firefighters take.

“Some of the things we can do is to educate ourselves and be diligent and prudent in our everyday encounters with exposures,” Poole-Kelley said.

For example, firefighters should remove contaminants and soot from their head, neck, jaw, throat, underarms and hands while still on the scene. They should also decontaminate their personal protective equipment in the field, shower thoroughly after a fire, change clothes and wash them after a fire and refrain from taking contaminated clothes or gear home or storing it in their vehicles.

It wasn’t too long ago, firefighters thought sooty gear was a badge of honor and washing it brought bad luck. Firefighters know better now, Poole-Kelley said.

“We need to be our own best advocate for staying cancer free and share what we know to keep other members of the fire industry from getting this disease.”

Kim Smith | 547-9740