The bald and the beautiful

Members of fire department shave their heads in support of colleague with breast cancer


Let there be laughter.

Craig Fire/Rescue Deputy Fire Chief Bill Johnston said finding humor in a frightening situation makes the fear easier to deal with.

"You have two choices on anything, don't you? You can laugh about it or cry about it," he said. "Firefighters, we usually choose to laugh about it.

"If we quit laughing, guess what? We start crying."

So the crews at the fire station on Yampa Avenue kept the bay filled with laughter Saturday as they helped a comrade deal with the scary situation she's facing.

'So over it'

Firefighter Sue Garrett was diagnosed with breast cancer last month. Since then, her fellow crewmembers have been her shoulder to cry on, as well as her comic relief.

On Saturday afternoon, they were there to rid her of something that she said is weighing her down -- her hair.

"I'm so over it," Garrett said. "I'm sick of picking it up off the floor."

So Susan Johnston, the deputy chief's wife and owner of ImageMakers salon, brought over the clippers and gave Garrett what she wanted -- a clean-shaven head.

Firefighters and friends had the opportunity to take a swipe at Garrett's hair for a donation, which will go to help pay her growing medical bills.

Firefighter Kamisha Siminoe said she was happy to share that experience with her friend, and she respected her decision.

"She's doing this on her own terms, not the chemotherapy's terms," Siminoe said. "She's not sitting at home waiting for her hair to fall out."

But it didn't stop there. Several firefighters also chose to go bald in support of Garrett's condition.

"It's so when she shows up with no hair, there's others down here with no hair," said Johnston, one of many to take the plunge. "It's so she doesn't feel so awkward."

Rescuing herself

Garrett, 39, was lying on the couch in early July, lounging with one hand behind her head. She casually reached to scratch an itch, and felt a lump in her right breast.

"I hoped that it wasn't (cancer), knew that it probably was," Garrett said.

After a mammogram, an ultrasound, three needle biopsies and a lumpectomy, Garrett's doctors determined the lump was cancerous at the beginning of August.

Soon after, doctors removed 10 lymph nodes, one of which carried a trace of cancer. She said the lump was fairly small, so she will not need reconstructive surgery. However, she does have a large scar.

To be safe, Garrett is undergoing eight chemotherapy treatments throughout 16 weeks at Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs. In January, doctors will follow up with six weeks of radiation in Denver. Garrett will stay in Denver, traveling home on weekends.

Although her doctors have endorsed an aggressive course of treatment, Garrett said she realizes that nothing is assured when battling cancer.

"They can't guarantee that it hasn't spread to other organs in my body," she said.

Becoming a number

Garrett said she was, and is, scared and confused about why she is so young with the disease.

Both her grandmothers died of breast cancer, so Garrett has been aware of the probability of her being diagnosed as well. She's had regular exams and mammograms. But she didn't expect to get it when she was pre-menopausal. Her grandmothers were both older.

"I'm that statistic -- one of every eight women get breast cancer," Garrett said. "I'm just a statistic. It has nothing to do with genetics."

Instead of reasoning about her likelihood of developing cancer, Garrett said her attention has turned to God.

"What is the lesson I'm supposed to learn from this? I'm thinking that God's talking to me, and I'm supposed to stop and listen."

While she's doing that, Garrett is on short-term disability leave from work and is not responding to fire calls.

But that's doesn't mean she's not still part of the team.

"I spend a lot of time with these guys," she said. "They are my family away from home."

Men in pink

Garrett said since her diagnosis, she's cried on fellow firefighters' shoulders and laughed at their jovial teasing.

"These guys are an incredible support," she said. "I couldn't do this -- nor would I want to -- without them."

Firefighters have brought her dinner on her chemo weeks and driven her to Steamboat for treatment. Many of them wear pink bracelets with messages of hope, and firefighters have breast cancer decals on order to place on their helmets.

Fire Chief Chris Nichols said this is the first time an active firefighter has been diagnosed with cancer. He said he's been impressed by the way the department has pulled together for Garrett.

"Support is a major factor in fighting and beating this disease," he said.

And that's exactly what they plan Garrett will do. Nichols said he expects Garrett back in uniform in the spring, once she's at 100 percent again.

Garrett said she has the same plan and can't wait to suit up for a call again.

"I will return, without a doubt," she said. "This is just what I do."

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