Wellesley firefighter returns to work after beating cancer

WELLESLEY, Mass. — A Wellesley firefighter who beat stage 3 malignant melanoma returned to work with a warm welcome Tuesday.

Police officers and fellow firefighters greeted Joanie Cullinan and snapped pictures as she arrived at the fire station for her 24-hour shift.

Cullinan, who was diagnosed with cancer at 37 years old, endured a grueling year of chemotherapy followed by months of physical therapy and strength training to get her body back in shape for the job she loves.

“Amazing. It’s the best day of my life so far. That’s for sure,” Cullinan told Boston 25 News Tuesday. “The town really rallied behind me the past year and a half. It was amazing and, I think, key for me in beating this fight.”

Early detection likely saved Cullinan’s life. Her battle began after a small mole was spotted at a free skin test at a Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts conference. That mole would turn out to be malignant melanoma, which spread to her lymph nodes, requiring surgery and chemo.

“It was a tough year,” Cullinan said. “I’m a fighter. I put my head down, and I got the job done. I smiled through it, I laughed, I made the best of it.”

Friends, family and firefighters celebrated Cullinan’s last day of treatment in May, throwing a surprise parade outside the fire station.

What Cullinan didn’t realize was that even after beating cancer one of the hardest chapters of her battle lay ahead: the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic and awaiting clearance to return to work.

Cullinan relied on friends and family to help her through her most difficult days.

“For me, the really hard part was the time between finishing treatment and getting back here,” Cullinan said. “It’s a really hard time for people in general right now [with the pandemic]. A lot of people are struggling, and not having that purpose was really hard. I felt like I was treading water. I wanted to shut the door to cancer, and I couldn’t do that until today, until I got back here.”

As Cullinan brushes up on her gear and learns her department’s new COVID-19 protocols, she is sharing her story of early cancer detection and using the power of community to fight any battle that comes one’s way.

“If I can prevent anyone from going through what I went through, then it makes it worthwhile,” Cullinan said. “I’m a firefighter. I’m a helper by nature. I want to help people.”