Joe Cooper’s cancer had already reached an advanced stage by the time of his diagnosis at age 46. (Alan Neushwander | Spectrum Health Beat)

Firefighters are often referred to as the bravest of the brave.

As chief of the Riverton Township Fire Department in rural Mason County, Joe Cooper has been the epitome of brave, having helped battle many hard-fought fires. His bravery has perhaps never served him better than now, while fighting the biggest challenge of his life.


In fall 2016, Cooper started experiencing back problems. He blamed the pain on the rigors of his job. But he knew something wasn’t right when his bones started to weaken.

“I was sitting in my truck and coughed really hard,” Cooper said. “There was a pop and it felt like I broke a rib.”

A visit to the emergency department at Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital confirmed that Cooper had a broken rib and fractured vertebrae. Further testing revealed he had multiple myeloma, a rare form of blood cancer that affects plasma cells.

At just 46 years old, Cooper had already reached an advanced stage at diagnosis.

“The doctors think I probably had it for a couple of years,” he said. “The biopsy confirmed 100 percent of my bone marrow was diseased.”

Within days of his diagnosis, he started treatment at Spectrum Health Cancer Center at Ludington Hospital under the care of Carol Peterson, MD.

“There’s no cure for multiple myeloma,” said Cooper’s wife, Tracy. “He won’t ever be in total remission, but there are many treatments and we have it under control right now. We’re doing well and we’re maintaining.”

Cooper’s chemotherapy treatments have ended, but he still visits the cancer center for bone strengthener treatments every 28 days along with taking medication to slow the cancer’s progress.

“Realistically, we know he will eventually have to do treatments again,” Tracy said. “We can’t rule out a bone marrow transplant, either. We’re just hoping we can hold off as long as possible.”

For Cooper, a positive attitude and a strong support system from family and friends have helped him cope.

“I’d rather be fighting fires,” he said. “It’s still hard to believe, but I think I’ve taken it on and fought it the best that I can.”

Cancer Patient Assistance Fund

The Coopers have also felt the financial impact of having cancer. Cooper is unable to work his full-time job as a farmer and is currently without insurance after his short-term disability ran out in August.

“Even when we had the insurance, there were battles with the insurance company, so we initially had to pay a lot of our bills out-of-pocket,” Cooper said. “Dr. Peterson’s office and her staff worked hard on our behalf to make sure we had the medicine I needed and could afford it. The social worker knows all of the grants and funding that’s available to help us out.”

Among the funding is the Cancer Patient Assistance Fund through Spectrum Health Foundation Ludington Hospital.

The fund, established earlier this year, provides financial assistance to help patients with out-of-pocket costs that aren’t covered by insurance such as copays, deductibles, medication costs and travel expenses.

Without that help, people with cancer—people like Cooper—often don’t know where to turn.

They can get stuck between the need for life-saving treatment and the ability to afford it. Like having a fire inside of them, the tools available to fight it, but no way to reach the tools.

Fortunately, the donor-driven Cancer Patient Assistance Fund is helping Cooper and others access the treatment they need—so they can fight the biggest fire of their lives.