LAKELAND, Fla. — A firefighter and paramedic with the Lakeland Fire Department returned to the job on Friday after a grueling 16-month-long battle with cancer.
“Genuinely it feels good to be able to give back and help somebody in their time of need,” Clay Geiger said on his first shift back.
Geiger was only 30 when he was diagnosed with a rare form of Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma called Natural killer/T-cell lymphoma (NKTL) in 2020. While he can't claim complete remission yet, he said he's excited to get back on the job.
"I wasn't sure this day would ever get here, but I couldn't be more excited for my return," said Geiger. "It was a long journey, and I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for the continued support of my family and work-family."
Geiger contributes to the finding of his rare cancer to Dr. Donald C. Lanza at the Sinus & Nasal Institute of Florida. Dr. Lanza referred him to Moffitt Cancer Center for his treatment, which took place over six months.
“I was 30 years old, and I’ll never forget it. Firefighters are at an increased risk of cancer. So, the thought was there that someday but not at 30,” Geiger said.
“I would show up very early, around six or seven, and start chemo and I wouldn’t leave there until six or seven that night. I would take a pump home and we did that Monday through Friday,” he said.
He underwent six months of radiation and chemotherapy. In the middle of his treatment, he was dealt yet another blow.
“I was on my way home and I got that call and he told me I had tested positive for COVID. So at the point, I'm thinking I am a 30-year-old that may pass from COVID. I don’t have an immune system,” Geiger said. "It was really bad. I was pretty much confined to the bed. High fevers, night sweats. Plus, just having received COVID, it was probably one of the sickest I've ever been,” he added.
During his battle, Geiger was also diagnosed with COVID-19 in December 2020.
"I thought that was it; I had no immunity. Cancer and treatments significantly weaken your immune system," said Geiger.
Geiger overcame but he won't know if he's in complete remission until he undergoes several years of follow-up appointments and scans.
“I had a huge support system; my girlfriend took extraordinary care of me. The fire department they all came together and not just this fire department but other local fire departments,” said Geiger.
He said the support from his firefighter family is what kept him going through the most difficult time of his life.
“If he needed a ride to treatment or if he needed meals dropped off. He didn’t have to worry about what he was going to eat, groceries anything like that,” said Joseph Allison, Firefighter/ Paramedic with the Lakeland Fire Department.
Geiger wants to use his experience to advocate for cancer patients and firefighters, Lakeland Fire said. According to the department, cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters. The department also said research shows firefighters are at a higher risk when compared to the general population.
“My family crest is Latin in a few words, but it translates to courage grows strong from the wound and it means a lot to me because as I get through this, I'll come out with a new perspective, stronger and more able to live my life,” Geiger said.
In 2019, the state passed Senate Bill 426 which grants benefits to a firefighter when they're diagnosed with cancer when certain conditions are met. You can read the full bill history, which went into effect on July 1, 2019, by clicking here.
"We are very excited to have Clay return to work following a very courageous battle with cancer. He has kept a positive attitude and demonstrated tremendous courage and determination throughout his treatment," said Fire Chief Doug Riley. "His return is a monumental win for the department and the citizens we have the privilege of serving every day."