Victory: How one firefighter beat breast cancer

Laura Baker, a 20-year firefighter, was shocked when she was diagnosed with breast cancer; she started a plan immediately to get healthy again

About one in eight women in the United States develop invasive breast cancer during their lifetime.

Laura Baker found out she was among that 12 percent.

She was young, strong and healthy – three things she thought were in her favor. But after receiving that dreaded phone call on her way to work, she started focusing on a plan to beat it.

Baker encourages others to seek early detection of firefighter cancer. Photo courtesy of Laura Baker via ZiembaPhoto
Baker encourages others to seek early detection of firefighter cancer. Photo courtesy of Laura Baker via ZiembaPhoto

Baker, a 20-year fire service veteran, is no stranger when it comes to hard work. She started her career with the Tucson (Ariz.) Fire Department. She moved through the ranks of firefighter, paramedic, captain, deputy chief and assistant chief.

She was also a member of the hazmat team for six years, served as a training captain for nearly two years and was a rapid-response team captain.

She is the past-president of the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Service (iWomen), which provides education, support and advocacy for fire service women.

Firefighter support and cancer advocacy

After years spent focusing on other firefighters' support and advocacy, Baker started receiving her own from family and colleagues.

"My family was extremely supportive," said Baker. "I was a little shocked initially, but quickly got myself focused on a plan."

And her plan was to act immediately and as quickly as possible to rid her body of cancerous cells.

She had a PowerPort, which is a device that creates access to a patient's bloodstream so that medications and fluids can be given, implanted two weeks after her diagnosis. One week later, her doctors started her on a 5-month-long chemotherapy plan.

"It was challenging, and dealing with the side effects from the chemo was probably the most challenging," Baker said. "My goal was to master the chemo as best as I could."

Baker not only lost her hair to the chemo treatment, but also lost a total of 20 pounds.

"Eating was difficult," she said. "It was so important to keep my strength. I kept a journal and tried to mimic the things that made it easier to cope with it. But chemo is a cumulative thing, so it wasn’t the same each time."

The side effects of chemo and the toll it takes on your body leaves some unable to work.

Not Baker, though.

She was inspired by two fellow firefighters who stayed on shift during their breast cancer fight.

"I felt very fortunate to be able to keep working, though I knew if I needed to I could take time off," she said. "I knew of two women who went through what I did and they stayed on shift. They inspired me to keep working."

As a chief in administration, Baker said working was more manageable since she wasn't running calls.

Early detection for firefighter cancer

She went in for a bilateral mastectomy, the removal of both breasts. At her follow-up appointment, doctors told her she was a "CR-complete responder," which means the chemo did its job and there was no cancer found in the tissue removed.

As would be expected, her firefighter family supported her every step of the way.

"I knew if there was something I needed they would be there, but I'm thankful it did not get to that," she said.

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month, her department is wearing pink T-shirts to not only show support for Baker but for anyone battling breast cancer.

Baker also co-chaired the Susan G. Komen Run/Walk in Tucson.

"I was blessed with amazing people around me. My faith in human kindness, if ever in doubt, was renewed," she said. "The love, prayers, texts, flowers, emails, calls and visits were overwhelming and lifted my spirts more than I ever could imagine."

When asked what advice she would give someone who just found out they have breast cancer, she reiterated how important it was to make a plan.

"Seek support, assemble the best medical team, and accept it, but make a plan to beat it," she said. "I seriously was never angry or felt sorry for myself. I did ask 'why me?' in the sense of what do I need to learn from this experience."

Baker's tip for general health awareness was simple and to-the-point: listen to your body and don't wait.

"Early detection is important and certainly gives you a better chance to beat breast cancer," she said. "All cancers are different, so educating yourself about your specific cancer can be very helpful."

She also stressed the importance of taking the time to focus on your health.

"I believe I got cancer for a reason and though I do not have the complete answer to that, I have learned a great deal and one of those things I learned was I needed to take care of me."

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