"I've never been to hell," Elarms said, "but I can't imagine it's any worse than chemotherapy."
The chemo eventually cleared traces of her cancer, but the 53-year-old underwent a mastectomy and now suffers from neuropathy, a nerve ailment that causes extremities to lose sensation and function. While her doctors didn't indicate what might have caused her cancer, the 10-year Fire Department veteran has her own suspicions.
"We work around a lot of stuff we shouldn't be around," Elarms said.
According to a recent department study, 10 out of 117 female San Francisco firefighters between the ages of 40 and 50 said they had contracted breast cancer, and one has died. At 8.5 percent, the breast cancer rate among female firefighters here is nearly six times the national average for women in that age bracket.
Pinpointing the exact cause of any cancer cluster is difficult, but firefighters' exposure to harmful chemicals is a major factor, said Tony Stefani, a retired Fire Department captain who founded the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation."