One For All and All For One

Chesapeake firefighter Heather Callahan battles breast cancer with an ultimate display of support from Hampton Roads firefighters

Chesapeake Fireman Is Fighting Breast Cancer

Heather Callahan spends her days running toward what others flee from. She has been a firefighter for over 12 years and has spent the last eight at Chesapeake’s Station 2 Portlock, one of the busiest firehouses in North America. 

Callahan says she has always wanted to help people. Initially she wanted to become a nurse. But after beginning training as a firefighter in order to become an EMT, she was hooked. “Once I got into the academy, I realized there was nothing else I would rather do,” she says.

In late 2011, Callahan was forced to put fighting fires on hold to fight something far more frightening. After returning to her doctor for a follow-up on a lump in her breast she had found four months earlier, she was sent to have another ultrasound and mammogram. Her doctor at Chesapeake Regional Medical Center told her it was “very suspicious of breast cancer,” and she was advised to stay and have a biopsy that same day.

“I held my breath for a week. The doctor told me if it were benign, a staff member would call. When the phone rang and I heard her voice, I knew what it was, and I was in shock. My husband was in the hallway, he saw the expression on my face and he knew. He was kind of speechless at first, then it was, ‘Okay, that’s what it is; what are we going to do to get rid of it?’”

A mother of two, Callahan and her husband had to inform their 8-year-old daughter Kaila and their 4-year-old son Liam of the news.

She also had to inform her crew.

“I called my captain here. They knew the biopsy was going on; everybody was kind of waiting. As soon as I found out, I called.”

And so began the greatest outpour of support she could have ever imagined.

Members of her crew were at every appointment and her two surgeries. After her first chemotherapy session was scheduled and it became apparent that Callahan would lose all of her hair, her lieutenant told her, “One for all and all for one. We’re all shaving our heads.”

“It started with just my crew, then the rest of the area’s firefighters heard about it,” she says. January 29 was the date scheduled for the "Baldathon." They had anticipated about 50 firefighters to shave their heads in support.

After her first chemotherapy session in early January, her mid-length, strawberry blonde hair began to fall out in clumps, so she shaved her head before the event. Her crew followed suit.

The day of the event, expectations were far exceeded when more than 100 people showed up at Station 2 to shave their heads.

When asked how the tremendous amount of support feels, Callahan beams. “Speechless. Overwhelming. I just can’t…words can’t explain.” She laughs. “They took a very scary and hard time for me and made it an enjoyable moment.”

Captain Brian Fancher says, “It just brought us all together. We’re a tight unit anyway, but it was good to be able to show support for one of ours.”

Callahan is on hiatus from her life of peril until the chemotherapy and radiation are complete. She anticipates being back on the job in mid to late fall, and until then, she’ll be hanging out with her crew at the station.

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