Wellesley firefighter battling cancer holding fundraiser to raise awareness

WELLESLEY, Mass. — Joanie Cullinan went from fighting fires to fighting for her life. The Wellesley firefighter said she probably wouldn’t be alive today had it not been for a free skin check offered at a conference for firefighters.

“They found a spot on my lower back and told me to keep an eye on it,” Cullinan told Boston 25 News. “I had no idea it was there. I literally never would have found it.”

During a routine physical in February, Cullinan requested her doctor biopsy the area of concern. A week later, she found out she had malignant melanoma.

She went in for surgery the next month.

“They removed a tumor out of my back,” she said.

The surgeon also removed lymph nodes from Cullinan during her operation, which also tested positive for malignant melanoma.

Cullinan said she was stunned to learn she was a stage 3 cancer patient, especially since she never felt sick. She did admit to feeling more tired than usual, but she just chalked that up to being 38.

“I was getting older,” she said. “I thought, this is life. This is what happens.”

Cullinan said the free skin check offered at the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts conference during the summer of last year undoubtedly saved her life.

“I can’t thank the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts enough for everything they've done and actually I think it has to do a lot to do with this segment [Boston 25 News] did because [Boston 25 News] brought awareness and it helped get the word out and it saved my life,” she said.

Boston 25 News has done extensive reporting on the cancer risk firefighters face on the job with our Boston’s Bravest coverage.

>>RELATED: Boston’s Bravest

Cullinan is currently in the middle of her year-long oral chemotherapy treatment and dealing with a common side effect.

“My hair is falling out, but it's really funny. It’s only on the left side,” she said. “I have a lot of hair. I have so much hair to lose, but I'm really vain and I love my flow, so it has been kind of hard. It hurts the soul a little bit.”

Next month, Cullinan is hosting a Buzz-A-Thon and letting her barber take buzzers to her beautiful flow, which she jokes is almost as good as President John F. Kennedy’s hair.

“If I’m going to shave my head, I’m going to raise some money, raise some awareness, do it that way,” she said.

Her event caught the attention of Boston Celtics star Gordon Hayward who posted on his Instagram story Monday, “I want to have Joanie’s back like she has ours. She’s fighting caner all while raising awareness. Let’s help this hero out.”

Cullinan said the amount of support has been overwhelming, leading to her new motto, “People are good. My people are great.”

If you’d like to join Cullinan and Wellesley Fire Chief Rick DeLorie by “shaving your head for heroes in red” during their Buzz-A-Thon, the event is being held at Wellesley Fire Headquarters (457 Worcester Street, Wellesley, MA 02481) on Sunday, November 3, 2019 from noon to 4 pm.

A GoFundMe page has also  been set up to collect donations. All the money raised will go toward fighting occupational cancer.

Cullinan hopes to return to work in May when her chemotherapy treatment is finished.