Synovial Sarcoma. Sounds wicked. Sounds scary. Only about 800 people a year in the U.S. hear this diagnosis. Most are men. It is a soft tissue cancer, rare and very aggressive, accounting for less than 1% of all malignant tumors. Bad news.
Brent Seymour, 50, is part of the 1%. He recently returned to work following two surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation after doctors removed a baseball-size tumor from his right armpit. Seymour is the Knoxville Fire Department (KFD) assistant chief for fire investigations, public education and community risk reduction. He is a 27-year KFD veteran and a native Knoxvillian who lives in Gibbs.
He’s had it rough of late, to put it mildly. He could have retired. He’s put in his time. “I have to say retiring crossed my mind, but not seriously. We’ve got to see where this journey takes us,” he said. “I for sure have a different outlook on life and my family.”
Notice that he used the pronoun “we.” The other half of the “we” is his wife, Kelley, a registered nurse of 28 years. She is the nurse manager at the National Embryo Donation Center in Farragut. She’s a part of this story. “I would not and could not have survived this long without her,” Seymour said. “At first, I didn’t know enough about this to be scared. But Kelley knew.”
His cancer was Stage 3B, Kelley said. “When this cancer is at Stage 4 it can’t be cured. It has a high mortality rate and the outlook is about a 5-year survival rate. But they caught Brent’s early and his surgeries and treatments since all give him a long-life survival rate. I think he’ll be around a while.”
Ten months after his diagnosis, surgeries, treatments and recovery time, he’s back at work as of mid-January. “I still get a little tired near the end of the day but that’s improving,” he says. He and his staff of six investigate almost every fire in Knoxville. They have to know if the fire is accidental or arson.
In 2021, Seymour discovered a small growth in his armpit. “It was about the size of a marble and I got my doctor to look at it. It was not painful at all and wasn’t growing,” he explained. “So, we kept watching it and everything seemed OK.”
Then came January 2022. Here is Kelley again. “We were getting ready for work one morning. Brent was drying off after his shower and when he raised his right arm, I immediately saw how large this growth had gotten. It shocked me.”
He saw the doctor that week. It was a challenging process of multiple appointments. The first diagnosis was an enlarged lymph node. The tumor kept growing and in March the surgeon did a biopsy. The results led to his first surgery on April 21, 2022. The surgery took much longer than expected. The doctor eventually came to the waiting room. With tears in his eyes, he said they had a hard time getting it out and that he thought it was probably cancer. Pathology confirmed the synovial sarcoma.
Kelley got busy, spending 100-plus hours researching synovial cancer. She learned that doctors at the famed Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in York City were among the leading experts on this form of cancer. Many NY firefighters were diagnosed and treated for synovial sarcoma at Sloan Kettering post 9/11.
That led to a trip to Sloan Kettering on June 11-13. But just before they left, she was walking down their stairs early one morning and their dog, a Dalmatian named Tanker, knocked her down the steps and she broke her right ankle. She didn’t have time for surgery and did not want to delay the trip to New York, so she made the trip, limping the entire time. She had surgery the day after returning from New York.
On June 16, Seymour began a regimen of 16 chemo sessions that required the entire summer of 2022 to complete. He had four rounds of chemo and was supposed to do six, but the strong chemo caused bone marrow failure so the treatments were halted.
After that first trip, Brent and Kelley had a couple of “zoom” appointments. His second surgery was on October 6. “We were there from October 3-10 for the surgery. The next visit was Nov 11-14, and our most recent visit was Jan. 26-30, 2023. We go back again on April 10,” she said.
The second surgery was basically to widen the margins from where the tumor was removed and to clean out and make sure no malignant cells remained.
But Brent is not out of the woods. He will receive scans and have doctors’ appointments in NYC every 3-6 months for the next five-plus years to make sure the cancer has not returned. His most recent scans were considered stable.
“We are hopeful his scans will remain stable. He has a passion to continue his career in the fire service and he has a lot of life left to live,” Kelley said. “But the chances of this returning and spreading are extremely high.”
The family is all about the fire business. Brent is second generation KFD. His father, Gary, retired as a captain after 34 years. Two of his four sons are third-generation firefighters. Gage is 26 and works at KFD’s Station 11; and Cruze, 21, is a Rural Metro firefighter. Their other boys are Kaden, 24, and Boston, 19.
Here are some other Brent Seymour facts:
- Carter High grad, class of 1990 and played drums in the band (bass, snare and quads) and still has a set at home he plays.
- Has a bachelor’s degree in public safety from Grand Canyon University and a master’s in public administration (disaster management) from the American Military University.
- Worked as a part-time flight paramedic for four years with Lifestar.
- One of only three fire professionals in Knox County to complete the prestigious National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program, the industry’s premier leadership program.
- Retired in 2020 from the Air National Guard at McGhee Tyson after 27 years as a senior master sergeant. He originally enlisted as a firefighter but transitioned out of the fire department and became a boom operator on KC-135 refueling jets. His father was also a firefighter in the Air Guard and son Gage also enlisted as a firefighter and has since transitioned to a boom operator. He remains in this position and is actively serving now.
One of the reasons Brent Seymour wants to keep going is so he and Kelley can make other first responders and firefighters aware of this rare cancer.
Kelley adds these thoughts: “… As a firefighter’s wife (and also a mother of two sons who are firefighters), I always worried more about them going into a burning building or responding to car wrecks, shootings and other medical calls that might get them hurt or killed. I didn’t consider the risk of them contracting a potentially life-threatening cancer from exposures to carcinogens. I now know occupational cancer is one of the leading causes of line-of-duty deaths for firefighters. We will make it our mission to bring awareness, encourage prevention and early screenings so other families are not faced with this.”
KFD Assistant Chief Lonnie Glenn began his career alongside Seymour. “He’s like a brother to me and I’d be surprised if he retired. He loves this work. He lives it, eats it and breathes it.”
Lonnie’s right, Seymour says. “I do love it. It’s alI I’ve known since I was 14. Always will love it.”
Tom King has been the editor of newspapers in Texas and California and also worked in Tennessee and Georgia.