Men's lives change with breast cancer diagnosis


Gene Kelly, a breast cancer survivor, and son Alex Kelly, 13, talk to a reporter at their residence in Ocala on Sept. 16.

Jacqui Janetzko/Star-Banner
Published: Sunday, October 7, 2012 at 12:41 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, October 7, 2012 at 12:41 p.m.

Steve Dilley and Gene Kelly are 1-percenters.

It's not that they are atop the financial heap, though they probably wish they were; both men are survivors of breast cancer — Dilley in 2011 and Kelly this year.

Although rare, men can and do get breast cancer.

“Hey, we've got breast tissue, and God gave us nipples, though we don't really know why, so, yes, we can get breast cancer,” said Kelly, 45.

According to forecasts by the American Cancer Society, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute, only 1 percent of breast cancer cases this year — about 2,200 — will be diagnosed in men, up from about 1,600 in 2003. By contrast, some 210,000-plus women will be diagnosed this year.

Additionally, 410 men will die from breast cancer this year, notes the American Cancer Society.

And while cases are rare, there's a special hope ribbon just for male breast cancer: half is pink, the other half is blue.

Still, we're talking more than just statistics on a page or a computer screen.

“It's the psychological concept of it,” said Dilley, 60. “You know, men think they're 10-feet-tall and bulletproof. When something like this hits, it changes your whole concept. Instead of looking at the tree, you're looking at the leaves on the tree.”

Their stories are similar; moreover, neither man ever expected to hear, “You have breast cancer.”

***

When he retired after more than 20 years in law enforcement, Steve Dilley and his wife, Suzanne, moved to Ocala from Canton, Ohio, in 2005. Their life was fairly routine until one April night a year ago.

“I was lying in bed one night and put my hand on my chest, and it was kind of tender,” he said.

There was a small lump under his left nipple.

At first, Suzanne, an operating room scrub tech at The Villages Hospital, figured it was gynecomastia — a common benign male breast disorder that feels like a lump.

Just to be sure, they scheduled a mammogram for him. The mammogram confirmed something unusual.

The next few days were a whirlwind, starting with a biopsy — “That hurt,” Steve said. “It was the most painful part of the whole process.”

Then he had surgery to remove the breast entirely.

“The whole thing, from diagnosis to surgery, took about eight days,” he said.

But he stayed positive. “Attitude is everything,” he said. “I made up my mind that if this stuff was coming after me, it was going to have to fight me.”

Evidently, Steve won the battle. He did not have to go through either chemotherapy or radiation; the surgery alone was sufficient.

Still …

“When you hear you have the Big C, it rocks your world,” Steve said. “I just sat there and cried.”

Suzanne said she found him one day crying in their bedroom.

“When I asked him why, he said, ‘I'm so deformed,'” she said. “I told him, ‘No you're not, you're cancer free.'”

***

Gene Kelly was in the shower one day in May. Washing under his left arm, he noticed something odd.

“I felt a little lump on the side of my chest,” he said. “A lot of people probably might have blown it off, but I'm in school for nursing.”

His wife, Cristina, a nurse at Shands Cancer Center in Gainesville, urged him to have a mammogram, even though he'd just had a physical three weeks earlier. The mammogram led to a biopsy.

He was urged to have surgery in mid-June, but Kelly was committed to going to Boy Scout summer camp with his son, Alex, 13.

“I was not going to miss that week with my son,” he said. “I caught it early, I'm going to be OK. But that whole week was spent on a lot of what if …”

A surgeon removed Kelly's left breast as well as some muscle from the pectoral muscle behind it.

“The tumor was lying up against the muscle and they wanted to make sure they got it all,” he said. “I was supposed to be in for an hour; it ended up taking three and a half, four hours.”

During the surgery, the lymph nodes leading from the breast were removed as well. Cancer cells were found in one of them, meaning Kelly was in for chemo and radiation therapy. He finished his last chemo session two weeks ago, and starts six weeks of radiation soon.

And then it's back to life, full-time.

Once he's up to it, possibly as early as next year, Kelly plans to begin awareness advocacy for men under the possible banner of “Protect the Pecs.”

Both Kelly and Dilley urge all men to check their breasts every month just as women do. And if they find something amiss, do something about it. Possibly it's benign, but maybe it's not. It wasn't for either of them.

“If what we've talked about today can make one person aware,” Dilley said, “then it's all worthwhile.”

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