CUMBERLAND — While doing homework one day two years ago, 20-year-old Brandon Thibeau was surprised to feel a swollen lymph node on his neck.
His doctor thought it was odd, too, when Thibeau went for an appointment two weeks later. Thibeau underwent an ultrasound, and the results came back abnormal. The doctor told Thibeau he either had HIV or lymphoma.
“We did a biopsy, and the results came back NET cancer,” he said in an interview Dec. 15. “… I was like ‘wow – what’s next, then?'”
NET is short for neuroendocrine tumors, an unusual cancer that develops from cells in the endocrine system, according to netcancerday.org. They are usually found in the lung or gastrointestinal system, but can also appear in areas such as the pancreas, testes and ovaries.
Since then, Thibeau – a volunteer with the Cumberland and North Yarmouth fire departments – has been fighting to keep the tumors at bay. He recently had radiation beads shot into his liver for the second time, and he’s also had chemotherapy and radiation.
Thibeau has tumors in his brain, chest, liver and stomach. He underwent six rounds of chemotherapy right after the diagnosis, which reduced the cancer 40 percent, and tried an oral pill and immunotherapy afterward.
“There are a couple days when I’m like, ‘the chemo’s kicking me today,'” Thibeau, now 22, said. “But you’ve got to keep going.”
His youth gives him a better chance of fighting off the stage 4 cancer, doctors have told him, because his body is able to handle what they throw at it.
Thibeau still attends firefighters’ meetings, although his reduced lung capacity renders him unable to go out on calls. He had been a framer in the home construction trade, a job he had to give up a year ago.
Although he is giving his body more of a rest, Thibeau continues to exercise his mind. He just finished a fire science program at Southern Maine Community College.
No cause has been determined for Thibeau’s cancer. He doesn’t smoke, and 40 types of genetic testing revealed nothing.
Thibeau said he’s been bolstered by the community support he has received: nearly $15,000 from GoFundMe campaigns to help pay for medical bills, and North Yarmouth siblings John and Ashley Hayward donated livestock profits they earned at this year’s Cumberland Fair.
Spreading the word about NET cancer has become a mission for one of Thibeau’s friends, North Yarmouth Town Clerk Debbie Grover. Despite the rarity of the disease, she has known two other people in town who have had it.
Grover’s husband lost his first wife, Susan Taylor Grover, to NET cancer a decade ago at the age of 41, nine months after being diagnosed. She was told she was only the 113th person in the country with the disease.
Former North Yarmouth Town Manager Marnie Diffin succumbed to the disease in August, at 62, three months after she was diagnosed, Grover said.
After Thibeau’s diagnosis, Grover started doing research, and found that some medical professionals had not even heard of NET cancer, which is frequently misdiagnosed as colon cancer or irritable bowel syndrome.
“How could it be that for a rare cancer, that I would know three people who have been afflicted with it, in my small world of Cumberland and North Yarmouth,” she said in a recent interview alongside Thibeau. “I struggled to wrap my mind around that fact.”
To help make people more aware, Grover ordered a decal for her car for NET Cancer Awareness Day Nov. 10; her husband, Benjamin Grover, put large magnetic decals on his fleet of A.H. Grover trucks throughout November.
Grover was further moved to spread the word when she saw how Mechanic Falls’ public works crew painted a plow pink to promote breast cancer awareness. She wondered if the zebra design affiliated with NET cancer could go on a North Yarmouth plow.
Town Manager Rosemary Roy and Road Commissioner Clark Baston agreed, and a truck, painted by Public Works mechanic David Whittier, was ready for display outside the North Yarmouth Memorial School polling location on Election Day, Nov. 8.
“(It’s) just trying to get people to ask,” Grover said. “Like the (NET cancer) slogan says, ‘If you don’t suspect it, you can’t detect it.'”
“Breast cancer used to be a death sentence, (but) it is not so anymore, due to self awareness and research,” Grover said. “I truly hope one day we can say the same for NET cancers. In the meantime I will continue to spread the word that awareness is key.”
Turning to Thibeau, she said, “He’s my inspiration. He’s still plugging along, he’s strong, he’s going to beat it.”
Brandon Thibeau of Cumberland, second from right, is a firefighter who has been battling a rare neuroendocrine cancer for two years. David Whittier, left, North Yarmouth Town Clerk Debbie Grover, and Thibeau’s fiancee, Lindsay Nunley, are among the Cumberland and North Yarmouth residents who have supported Thibeau; Whittier painted the cancer awareness message and zebra-stripe design on the North Yarmouth plow truck.