An Olympia firefighter is inspiring his co-workers and community with his perseverance as he tries to overcome a difficult diagnosis of stage four lung cancer.
His fight is best summed up by two words: Hold fast. It's an old Coast Guard saying, which means “hang on, don't let your hands slip, there's a storm coming.”
Jim Brown is in the middle of that squall. For him, hold fast is a mindset, an attitude. He tattooed it on his hands.
“It means to grit it out, to like stay the course,” he said during an appointment at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, where received his 27th round of chemotherapy Wednesday.
Brown, a 49-year-old father of three girls, has been doing this for almost two years.
“It doesn't make sense that I have lung cancer. I never smoked in my life, I was a healthy athlete, and I developed breathing problems, and all of a sudden I have stage four lung cancer,” Brown said.
How does a guy who hikes mountains, snowboards down them, races bikes, and lives so fully, have all that called into question with such a grim diagnosis?
Brown is a firefighter for the Olympia Fire Department, where for nearly 23 years he's responded to countless house fires and industrial incidents.
“They think that carcinogens that I was exposed to in my career caused my cancer,” Brown said.
But this serious setback isn't slowing him down, and his tenacity has inspired many others to hold fast.
“There are 11 people walking around with a hold fast tattoo of some sort,” Brown said.
Hold fast stickers are all over Olympia, and you can spot them in other fire departments well beyond Washington. In Oregon, a brewery made a hold fast beer, just for Brown. Even the Foo Fighters are holding fast. A photo of a band member’s guitar with a hold fast sticker on it hangs in Brown's office.
“It's just been amazing, and we've needed it," said Regina Brown, Jim’s wife. "We've really needed it. I think we kind of chugged along fine when everyone was healthy, but the minute he got sick it was like the wheels fell off the cart, and we need all that support, so it's been amazing."
Brown is still holding fast to his career by doing office work on a project he hopes will help other firefighters avoid his fate. It's a new procedure meant to get firefighters out of their dirty, potentially contaminated gear as quickly as possible following a fire.
“The old salty ways of having the helmet that's all burned up and gear that stinks, that's not good,” Brown said.
“This was not tasked upon him because he has cancer; this is true to Jim’s spirit," said Capt. Kevin Bossard, Asst. Fire Marshal for the Olympia Fire Dept. "He does not want this to happen to any of his brothers or sisters here or anywhere else, and that's what drives him. The guy is just driven."
Hold fast often means staying active. Brown and his firefighter buddies are hiking on weekends when Brown has the energy. They climbed stairs to the top of the Space Needle in 2015 after Brown learned his diagnosis. He's planning to tackle the Columbia Tower firefighter stair climb in March.
“We were told that it would be surprising if he lived a year, so it was really touch-and-go, so it's pretty amazing to be sitting here today,” said Regina Brown.
“If I could rewind it 23 years and be told that you're going to get cancer when you're 47 years old, but you get to live this life, still, I think I would still live that life,” said Jim Brown.
He’s found help and resources through the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation and continues to focus on his chemo treatments at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. Brown says his most recent scan showed no noticeable growth or spread of his cancer.