Firefighter battles cancer, prepares for Stairclimb fundraiser

When Tiffany Moyes added an EMT certification to her Firefighter I credentials in May, she thought she was well on her way to a career as a firefighter. Instead, the 19-year-old Ferndale native was facing six months of chemotherapy and a fight for her life against advanced blood cancer.

“I could’ve cried about it, but what good would that do?” said Moyes, who comes from a family of firefighters, nurses and law enforcement officers. “Stage 4 Hodgkin’s disease isn’t that big a thing, like (other cancers). Stage 4 is highly curable.”

Her friends and family believe that buoyant optimism is what pushed her to continue as a firefighter while undergoing treatment.

“During her chemo, we hit three working fires together,” said Anthony Zanin, a volunteer firefighter who often works shifts with Moyes.

“She’s out there pulling a (hose) line, and she doesn’t want to slow down,” he said. “She’s got an emotional strength that doesn’t compare to other people. To look at her, you might not even know that she’d been sick – except for that stubble of blonde hair.”

On the mend, Moyes has turned her focus toward the annual Firefighter Stairclimb in Seattle, an event that will involve 2,000 firefighters from eight countries raising funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. She hopes her experience can inspire others and help researchers find a cure for leukemia and other blood cancers.

For the March 12 event, firefighters wear full turnout gear with an air pack and face mask, climbing 69 stories of the Columbia Center skyscraper. It’s about 60 pounds of equipment to carry up 1,311 steps of a narrow, windowless interior stairwell.

“The way I look at it is that I’ve been able to be the face for childhood cancer. Obviously, cancer sucks. But it doesn’t become real until you put a face on it,” Moyes said. “I’m just working on hitting the stair-climber and getting back into shape. I just want to finish.”

‘The dream,’ interrupted

Only a few months before Moyes learned about her illness, she’d been “living the dream,” as firefighters say about their craft. She’d become a resident firefighter for Whatcom County Fire District 7 at Station 43 on Northwest Drive north of Smith Road. She’s a volunteer firefighter but lives at 43’s, firefighter shorthand for the station house. As a resident, she can run alarms and be first out the door alongside District 7’s career staff.

Her illness started with a couple of swollen lymph nodes. The symptoms persisted and she mentioned it to her mother, Jennifer Moyes, a nurse who is patient-care director for emergency and critical care at Peacehealth St. Joseph Medical Center. Her father, Kevin Moyes, is a Whatcom County sheriff’s deputy.

Doctors diagnosed Tiffany with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that attacks the white blood cells. It was Stage 4, the worst, involving several lymph nodes and vital organs.

“I had swollen lymph nodes since December, but I didn’t think anything of it,” she said, sitting on the front bumper of Engine 43, her once-bald head sporting a new frizz of blonde. “Then the ball started rolling and hey – you have cancer.”

She turned to her mom for advice.

“What went through my mind was the worst scenario. But as a nurse, I knew what she was up against,” Jennifer said. “She dealt with it. It’s not to say that there weren’t a lot of emotions. She didn’t play the ‘what-if’ game. But it was in the back of her mind.”

Head-shaving party

Jennifer said the illness forced her already-confident daughter to grow up quickly.

“She learned who she really is at the core. She knows what she’s going after and what makes her tick. She lived life like she didn’t have a disease,” Jennifer said.

Still, Tiffany was facing long weeks of chemotherapy, the constant threat of infection and the promise of losing her long, thick, blonde hair.

“Chemo destroys everything in your body. With that comes destroying your immune system,” Tiffany said. “I didn’t want to have clumps of hair on my pillow, I just wanted to get it done. I shaved my head with a bunch of the guys and a girl (family and other firefighters). It was great. We had a head-shaving party.”

Tiffany dreamed of becoming a firefighter while at Ferndale High School, where she was a firefighter cadet through a District 7 program for 16- and 17-year-olds. It allowed her to learn firefighting skills but she wasn’t allowed to actually go inside a burning building.

“Nursing was too much school,” Tiffany said. “It was always between being a cop and being a firefighter.”

After the fire academy, she could take a line into a burning building and not just help outside.

“Thinking back about it, it’s really cool that while kids my own age are off sitting in class, I get to help people on the worst day of their life,” she said.

Lots of support

Assistant Chief Larry Hoffman said Tiffany has impressed him and other members of District 7’s command staff with her attitude and respect.

“We always have high hopes for our cadets,” Hoffman said. “She’s grown up. She’s had to grow up a lot. She’s actually grown to be one of the more trusted members of her crew. She’s really proven herself. Even on our best days, this can be a tough job. She’s pretty tough. This stuff wasn’t going to beat her and she proved that.”

But not without help from District 7 and from firefighters around Whatcom County, who donated money to help with Tiffany’s medical expenses. They made purple rubber wristbands that read “Feisty & Fearless” and wore them to show their support.

“They were really her extended family,” Jennifer said. “She got to see how truly large her support was.”

As for Tiffany’s illness, exams in July showed progress. Chemotherapy ended in November and another exam is scheduled in early February.

“Everything’s looking good,” she said. “But there are a couple of lymph nodes in my armpits that are still swollen. We’re waiting to see.”

Bellingham Herald reporter Robert Mittendorf is a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority and has participated in the Firefighter Stairclimb for 14 straight years.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

Firefighter Stairclimb

The 26th annual Firefighter Stairclimb benefits the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. In 2016, more than 1,900 firefighters from around the world raised a record $2.3 million for blood-cancer research and patient services.

To donate to Tiffany Moyes’ fundraising campaign, go online to llswa.org and click “Scott Firefighter Stairclimb.” From there, click “donate,” enter “Tiffany Moyes,” and click the red “donate now” bar.