Kirk Robinson’s Facebook feed is full of uplifting content: photos of his firefighting career, videos of his two boys skateboarding and boating, inspirational news stories, family selfies and “throwback” memes. There is so much negativity in the world, he said, and he likes to share the good things. But at the beginning of the summer, he decided to post something more personal, and less positive: that he’s been fighting cancer for the past year and a half.
The Mercer Island native is a lieutenant for the Bothell Fire Department, an active volunteer at his church and his son’s schools and always quick to lend a hand to friends, neighbors and strangers. His favorite stories to share are those of “people helping people,” he said.
Now, he’s the one that needs help, and though it’s not easy, Robinson said he’s started to accept it from his community. He doesn’t want pity, but said that he loves sharing his story, and cancer is part of that now.
He was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic melanoma on Feb. 23 last year, and decided to post about it on social media about two months ago, on June 4.
“I didn’t tell people for a long time, because I didn’t want them to treat me like I was sick,” Robinson said.
But after opening up about his diagnosis and treatment, he received an outpouring of love and support, and was named one of the “Hometown Heroes” for Mercer Island’s Summer Celebration parade.
“This is the first time in my life I have been dealt something I can’t ‘handle’ on my own,” he wrote on Facebook. “I have learned a lot over this past year and continue to learn daily. First and foremost I have learned I need to lean on other people when I need them.”
Robinson is asymptomatic from cancer, but has experienced a range of side effects from treatments and medications, from migraines and fevers, to hearing loss and stroke-like symptoms.
His neighbor set up a GoFundMe page, which Robinson resisted until he found out that the co-pay for his cancer medicine is $5,000 a month. He also started traveling out of state for treatments, seeing doctors at UCLA and MD Anderson in Texas, along with Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.
Robinson said he noticed a bump on his rib cage one day when he was working out, and decided to go to the doctor. It was deemed a “swollen lymph node” and removed by a surgeon, who later told him over the phone that he had stage 4 melanoma. Despite the difficult news, Robinson is staying optimistic, and continuing to help his community and share stories that make people smile.
Robinson’s history of heroism starts long before his battle with cancer. He graduated from Mercer Island High School in 1995, which is when he started forming lifelong friendships, lifeguarding at the SJCC and attending Mercer Island Presbyterian Church. He recently joined the church’s board, after years of leading youth groups, volunteering at events, playing in the worship band and bringing groups to Mexico to build houses.
He met Islanders Steve and Annie Hearon at a church fundraiser a few years ago, where they bonded over their love of classic cars. They nominated Robinson, “one of the funniest, coolest, and genuinely nicest guys you’ll ever meet” and “wonderful family man, humanitarian, and firefighting professional” to be a 2018 “Hometown Hero.” He said he was thankful for and flattered by the recognition, but that his philosophy has always been “just to help out on everything I can.”
“He’s the ‘boy next door’ and best neighbor and friend ever! He would literally give you the shirt off his back if it would help you — whether he knows you or not,” Annie Hearon wrote in her nomination. “Kirk has put out so much good into the world, that people are anxious to return the favor and help him for a change.”
Robinson went to Westmont College and studied kinesiology and sports medicine. His decision to become a firefighter surprised almost no one, as Robinson was always known as a “problem solver and a helper.” He joined Mercer Island’s auxiliary firefighting force in 1999, and was hired full time at the Bothell Fire Department in April 2001. He also served as an EMT in Mercer Island’s Marine Patrol.
Robinson said it was interesting time to be a firefighter. They “always had credibility, but it was different after 9/11,” he said. He volunteered to help at Ground Zero, and went to the south with a crew of eight firefighters from Bothell and Redmond to help FEMA in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Recently, researchers found that firefighters have an increased risk of getting cancer. The International Association of Firefighters says cancer is now the leading cause of death among their ranks.
Robinson said that one of his boys wants to be a firefighter when he grows up. Robinson supports it because he believes that “the future of firefighting is different,” and that already, more precautions are being taken and protocols are changing to improve safety and mitigate risk.
Being a firefighter has brought a lot to Robinson’s life. He met his wife while he was teaching a class on how to use fire extinguishers. He’s very involved in his department and continues to work, though he did have to miss Bothell’s pancake breakfast and Fourth of July parade this year. He has also participated in the Scott Firefighter Stairclimb, which supports The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, every year since 2001.
“For the last two years, I actually did it while I had cancer, but I didn’t tell anyone,” he said. “There’s a cancer survivor battalion that I can be part of next year.”
Robinson has faith in modern medicine. His current regimen, called a bridge treatment, appears to be working; he has no new tumors, and the ones he has have been reduced by half. He’s also planning to try T-cell therapy.
“It’s super dangerous because they have to basically eliminate your immune system,” he said. “But if it works, it’s a home run.”
He doesn’t have an extensive family history with cancer, except for one uncle, who he believes could have survived if he had access to today’s treatments.
“Almost all of the medicines that I’ve tried didn’t exist three years ago,” he said.
Because he has no cancer symptoms, Robinson has to go to the hospital every six weeks for scans. If he tries immunotherapy, he’ll have to go for infusions every three weeks, which have “a boatload of side effects.” But Robinson had a vision that he will beat cancer.
“I knew without a doubt that I was going to live through this. It’s 100 percent different fighting cancer knowing that, as opposed to wondering,” he said. “I haven’t made it this far in life without breaking the rules, and I don’t plan on starting now.”
Find the GoFundMe page at https://www.gofundme.com/9hxza-krob.