Russ Horn went to work every day as a firefighter for almost 30 years. But now he has a new job—one that takes the same courage, hard work, and perseverance required in his last role.
In 2014, Horn, then 50, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma—a cancer of plasma cells—after a minor slip at work sent him to the emergency room. A CT scan revealed two broken ribs and a punctured lung, a result of the cancer already attacking his bones.
While the cause of multiple myeloma remains unclear, evidence suggests exposure to environmental carcinogens may play a role. According to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, firefighters are 1.5 times more likely than the average population to receive this diagnosis.
“It was a complete shock,” says Horn. “I remember telling the doctor to make sure he had the right guy because I felt I was in the best shape of my life.”
Under the care of Jacob Laubach, MD, MPP, clinical director of the Jerome Lipper Multiple Myeloma Center at Dana-Farber, Horn has braved five different types of treatment available. He first received a stem cell transplant in 2015; since then, he has participated in clinical trials and received anti-cancer drugs and CAR T-cell therapy. Thanks to a new clinical trial, Horn recently completed his second CAR T-cell treatment.
Each relapse brings a new set of challenges, and Horn admits it’s sometimes hard to stay positive. For the veteran firefighter, one of the most difficult moments came in 2017 when he was forced to retire from the New Bedford, Massachusetts, fire department Local 841.
“Coming to Dana-Farber is my job now,” says Horn. “It’s scary not knowing what’s next, but I’m staying active and continuing to take care of myself because this disease is not going to win.”
Going forward, Laubach and Horn will continue working together. Laubach says Horn has further treatment options available, and every year there’s a possibility a new drug or drug combination could be approved for multiple myeloma.
“We look to stay ahead of the disease with the different therapies available,” Laubach explains, “And with any given treatment regimen we hope for a sustained, prolonged response.”
As treatment options evolve, so too does the push to better understand firefighters’ increased risk to certain cancers. In 2017, Emily Sparer, then a postdoctoral fellow at Dana-Farber and now a research associate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Glorian Sorensen, PhD, director of the Center for Community-Based Population Sciences, worked with the Boston Fire Department to assess ambient exposures at the fire station. Sparer’s work is one of many projects aimed at identifying risk factors and improving overall firefighter safety.
For now, Horn is using his time to be with his family. He recently became a grandfather, and this past Halloween he helped his grandson, Nash, dress up as Elvis.
“I’d do it all again,” Horn says of his 30 years as a firefighter. “This has been really hard, but having the guys behind me 100 percent makes it all a little easier.”