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Hold fast: Olympia firefighter battles cancer with dad’s words

Jim Brown's knuckle tattoos spell "Hold Fast" in honor of his father. (Lauren Padgett, KIRO Radio)

Jim Brown has the words “Hold Fast” tattooed across his knuckles. He got them in honor of his father, after his passing in 2011. But the words inspired by his father would soon serve him in greater ways than he initially realized.

“He was a career Coast Guard, Navy guy,” Brown told KIRO Radio’s Ron and Don Show. “It’s an old nautical term – ‘Hold fast the line.’ For me, it means to persevere and to grit it out. When I got it, after my dad passed away, it was my daily reminder to persevere and keep my chin up and keep fighting.”

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Fast forward to May 2015 when Brown, a captain with the Olympia Fire Department, was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. He blogged about his experience, and a photo of his “Hold Fast” tattoos made its way through the internet. People were inspired by the words. They became his battle cry. And he needed it.

“You go from your biggest concern being if you are going to get your workout in today, or getting your kids to their soccer practice, to somebody telling you if you don’t get into treatment right away you might have 3-6 months to live,” Brown said. “It’s a pretty big punch in the face.”

“The world doesn’t stop because you get cancer,” he said. “I have three daughters, a wife, and a career. You throw this on top of it.”

Hold fast: Fighting lung cancer stigma

Brown received treatment through the Cancer Care Alliance in Seattle. He now works with the Addario Lung Cancer Foundation.

“One of the things lung cancer really suffers from is a stigma,” Brown said. “I never smoked. A lot of people diagnosed with lung cancer never smoked. One of the goals of the Addario Lung Cancer Foundation is changing the face of lung cancer and helping remove that stigma. Research and funding takes a hit because of that stigma. People hear you have lung cancer, they think you smoked and you deserve that.”

Instead, Brown suspects that his cancer came from his career fighting fires.

“There’s so many carcinogens in construction materials these days,” he said, noting that firefighters wear a lot of gear when battling a blaze.

That gear includes masks, gloves and heavy clothing.

“Carcinogens can still get through dermally,” Brown said. “One thing is when you are fighting a fire, your body temperature goes up and the absorption rate for dermal carcinogens is exponentially increased. No matter how we try to protect ourselves there’s always an opportunity to be exposed to those hazardous materials.”

“You just don’t know what fire, or what carcinogen it was you were exposed to,” he said. “I don’t think I made mistakes. It’s just part of the job that I didn’t realize was part of the job in the early days. You don’t factor cancer into the risks of the job.”

But he still works as an Olympia firefighter. And he is still a father. And that’s because of his motto: hold fast.

“Hopefully, for a long time,” he said. “I have three daughters. I plan on seeing some graduations, some weddings, and some grand-babies.”

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