Volunteer Firefighter Graduates Fire Academy Despite Rare Cancer, Brain Surgery

Wake County Fire Academy graduate Summer Williams smiles with her diploma and achievement award
Summer Williams

Summer Williams had a goal of becoming a certified firefighter. And nothing – not cancer, chemo or even brain surgery – would stop her.

A Love of Firefighting
Summer, 23, got her first taste of fire services as a sophomore in high school when she joined the Fuquay-Varina Fire Department’s Fire Explorers program. The draw to firefighting was so strong that after spending a year and a half studying another subject at a community college, she decided to return to the FVFD and go through the Wake County Fire Academy.

“It was something I fell in love with,” she said. “It’s not the easiest, but it’s one of the most rewarding jobs to do.”

Summer was one of 30 recruits who began Wake County Fire Academy 11 on Sept. 3, 2019. The academy is tough — recruits are trained and tested on firefighting, hazardous materials, technical rescue and more. It runs from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. five days a week for 33 weeks.

“In the academy, you have all kinds of situations put in front of you, and you learn how to deal with them as you go,” said Academy Coordinator Brad Pace. “Summer excelled through the good and bad days of the academy and always did it with a smile on her face.”

An Ongoing Battle
Dealing with difficult situations is nothing new for Summer. In 2018, she was diagnosed with acral lentiginous melanoma, a rare type of skin cancer. She fought it. In September 2019, at her annual check-up, doctors told her the cancer had come back.

About halfway through the academy, she sat down with Pace to discuss her future.

“There are many who, understandably, would have quit training under these circumstances, but not Summer,” Pace said. “I assumed that she would just stop the academy until she got better and apply for the next one. But Summer informed me that she wanted another option, because she could not learn anything sitting at home. Summer was determined to give it everything she had to finish.”

That same month, doctors at Duke Medical Center Cancer Hospital removed seven of her lymph nodes, and she underwent chemo and immunotherapy for stage 3 cancer.

Through it all, she continued coming to Fire Academy class every day. When her treatments kept her from participating in physical training, she kept showing up to support her classmates. Unfortunately, her path to graduation was put on hold without completion of those physical components.

On May 15, 2021, Summer married her wife, Kim. Two weeks later, she was back in the hospital for emergency brain surgery to remove a tumor. She received five consecutive days of radiation. Her cancer had reached stage 4.

On Oct. 24, doctors found four tumors in her brain, one at the base of her neck and a cluster in her spine. They are unable to operate.

An Outstanding Achievement
When Pace first found out about Summer’s diagnosis, he promised that once she got her strength back up, Wake County Fire Services would work with her to make up the courses she missed. On Oct. 27, three days after the devastating diagnosis, she completed her final class to obtain firefighter certification and successfully graduated from the Wake County Fire Academy.

“If you know Summer, you love Summer,” Pace said when he presented her with an outstanding achievement award at a recent Wake County Fire Commission meeting. “Summer fought every day to achieve her dream. She encountered so many setbacks while trying to complete her fire training, but she kept moving forward. Summer is an inspiration to her classmates and to all who know her.”

Summer said those classmates and her fellow firefighters are part of the reason she was able to keep going, even on the days when waking up was difficult.

“I see my department and my fellow academy recruits as some of the best I have ever worked with,” she said. “They are all so hardworking and talented, and I can’t ever thank them enough for helping me through thick and thin.”

What advice does she have for anyone considering a career in fire services or facing seemingly insurmountable challenges?

“Just keep digging, and everything will pay off,” she said. “While we have time, let us do good.”

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