Wilmington firefighter, former board member fights rare cancer
WILMINGTON, VT — Jacob "Jake" White says a persistent cough led him to the doctor's office in the middle of 2014.
Soon after, he was being treated for allergies. Within a year or so, his primary care physician wanted a more detailed test done.
An x-ray of his lungs showed nothing. But a CAT scan did.
White was first diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.
"That drops your jaw," said White, 65, who has been on the Wilmington Fire Department since 1972 and served a three-year term on the Select Board until March 1. "I thought, 'How did this occur?' I had no symptoms other than the cough. It still doesn't seem that way. I'm actually healthy for someone who has Stage 4 cancer."
As White went for his first chemotherapy session, another test was done. A liver biopsy was sent to the Mayo Clinic.
"I rolled up the sleeve, ready to take the chemotherapy and the doctor said he had good news and bad news," White said. "He said, 'The good news is you don't have lung cancer.' That's another jaw-dropping moment."
White was told he did not have lung cancer but a tumor in his lung. The cancer was in various parts of his bones and body. Once it leaves one organ and goes to another, White said it's considered Stage 4.
Neuroendocrine cancer is rare. White said his doctor has only had a very few patients with it.
"It's kind of an unknown area for what medicine's going to do to this," he said. "They don't really know what works."
White was expecting a set of medicine to be delivered Thursday, the same day he spoke with the Reformer at his home. He thought the cancer might have to do with his running into burning buildings for the last 43 years as he was a non-smoker and stayed physically fit, but he said there is no way to know where it came from.
His only option now is to treat and control it. There is no cure. In the latest prognosis, he was given anywhere from three months to 10 years to live.
"Of course it was devastating news and we're going to support him in any way, shape or form," said Wilmington Fire Chief Ken March.
White is still active in the department but is no longer allowed to go into a burning building, March said.
"There's not much choice in this town," said White, referring to continuing on the department. He cited a declining membership on the volunteer department. "We're few and far between."
While it's difficult to say for sure whether White should be entering buildings with an air pack, he said he can perform other duties associated with firefighting. But he'd rather not drive a fire truck.
"That's not what I want to do. I want to be where the action is," he said, adding that he could help with the jaws of life equipment at the scene of a car accident and also direct traffic or stand with a radio to instruct other firefighters on what needs to be done. "I can't stop being a firefighter. It's in your blood. It's the family of firefighters. It's volunteering, helping people. You continue to do it and I will as long as my body lets me."
His son Jeremy is on the fire department. He started going to fires with White while still traveling in a child car seat. Now he's teaching pump classes to newer members.
In the past, small-town departments saw such father-son or father-daughter dynamics more often. Now, White said it's different.
"They're hurting. It's just that you never know who's going to show up because the lifestyles are different now," he said.
White said his fellow firefighters were surprised and stunned to learn of his cancer given his physical shape and the 100 days or so he puts in hiking Haystack Mountain annually. They might joke with White but they're still concerned.
His attitude, he said, is "probably the best thing going for me."
"I accept what I have," White said. "I still want to do the same things I want to do."
The frustration lies in his attempts to get the drugs to treat the cancer. He said his wife Monique has been his backbone through this process.
"Behind every good man is a good woman," he said. "She's been fighting for me."
Taking nearly three weeks to get the delivery of medicine was taxing on White, who said he wants to jump on treating the cancer as fast as possible. He has taken comfort in the solitude of his property, which is part of an old farm. He built his home back in 1976 and considers it his retirement home. Haystack can be seen from the deck, where he also sees deer, red foxes, bear, moose and other wildlife.
Doctors told White "if you want to do something, you better start doing it," he said.
"I'm always dreaming. We want to take the grand kids to Disney World. If I'm around next summer, that's when we'd love to go. I could go myself, I love the place so much," said White, who hasn't ruled out taking a third cruise with Monique. They've gone for their 25th and 30th wedding anniversaries but last year missed their 35th. "I would go on a cruise at the drop of a hat. I think, sometimes, dreaming of the places is better than going and not having a quality time."
Firefighting piqued White's interest after seeing a fire where the flea market is now held, near the intersection of Route 100 North and South. And he had taken on the Select Board position after gaining some down time from an early retirement from Shaw's Supermarket.
For 45 years, White was employed at Grand Union then Shaw's afterwards. Shaw's took over for Grand Union after the supermarket chain went defunct in July 2013.
"The highest I got was grocery management," said White, who spent most of his time as a dairy manager and felt being lower on the ladder than manager kept him in a safe place where they wouldn't transfer him to another store away from Wilmington. "My love was the valley here. I didn't want to go anywhere else."
Three years before he was let go in what he described as a mass lay-off, his brother Walter had been.
White was born and raised in Wilmington, currently living at a house up the road from the house he grew up in. His daughter Michelle lives in that house now. The road they live on was named for the family after the Highway Department informally referred to it as Whites Road when they would use it for turnarounds.
"Whites Road used to be a dead end. Back in the '50s, it never went completely through. It was basically a trail closed in winter," White said.
Hiking Haystack has always been a main interest of White. Strangers would see him up on a trail and recognize him from the supermarket.
As a Select Board member, White took on funding 1 percent local option tax revenue programs, provided updates from the town's Trail Committee and helped keep the budget from becoming too burdensome on residents' property tax rates.
"It's our loss," said Town Manager Scott Murphy on White not returning for another term on the Select Board. "But we can certainly understand why. This is a major fight for him. I say a prayer for him every day. I'm just hoping he beats this thing."
Murphy has known White since his start as town manager four-and-a-half years ago. He would see White working at Shaw's.
"Jake's (White) just one of those high-quality people. You really enjoy talking to him. He doesn't have many faults or arguments. He's very down to earth and straight forward. He's a great man, good guy to work with. If you asked him to do something, he'll tell you he already did. He'd do things in anticipation of it needing being done."
Contact Chris Mays at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.