Breast Cancer's Other Victims

September 27, 1994|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff Writer

Chris Ely recalls the evening, a few weeks after his wife's mastectomy, when Priscilla decided it was time for both of them to face the physical price of her breast cancer.

It was a long, emotional moment. He saw his best friend, the mother of their two girls, a beautiful, intelligent, courageous 40-year-old woman struggle with self-doubt, fearful of how he would react to her new appearance.

"Well, do you want to see this thing?" she asked him.

"And I said, 'It's O.K.'

"Then she just sort of opened her shirt. And I said, 'It's O.K.' And I gave her a hug. And for me, throughout the whole thing, even when she became bald, it was O.K.

"I frankly didn't care how she looked. Outward appearances were not important to me," he says. "We loved each other a lot. And from the point at which she was diagnosed, we were in this thing together."

Mr. Ely, 46, is known to thousands of Marylanders as the weekend sports anchor for WJZ-TV. But he is also one of the millions of men who count themselves among the victims of breast cancer.

These men often face the worst ordeal of their lives with little outside help. Support groups, widely available to women battling the disease, do not exist for their husbands or boyfriends. For the men, the struggle is usually private and painful.

"They say that breast cancer is a woman's disease and certainly the woman feels the pain of the disease, but I lived through that disease as if I had it," says Larry Naughton, an attorney who lives in Howard County. His wife, Courtney, died 12 years after a 1982 mammogram revealed a tiny tumor.

"The toughest thing was knowing that my absolute best friend, my lover, the person I'd lived with for 33 years was dying and that there was not one damn thing I could do about it," Mr. Naughton says.

Now he and other Baltimore men are raising money to fight the disease through their support for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation Race for the Cure, a walk-run at the Inner Harbor this Saturday. Their participation offers them the opportunity not only to raise awareness about the disease, but also to share their experiences with other men.

"There's a kind of relief to know that someone else has been

through the same situation you have," says Norman Ross, director of the Eubie Blake Center, whose wife of 35 years, Ruth, is a breast cancer survivor.

His wife had a mastectomy two years ago after her cancer was detected through a routine mammogram. Caught at an early stage, her cancer did not require chemotherapy.

Others are not so lucky.

Despite excitement about new genetic discoveries that may identify women at risk, despite studies suggesting regular exercise may protect women from developing the disease, breast cancer continues its relentless slaughter.

This year, as many as 46,000 women will die of breast cancer. Another 182,000 will discover they have it, according to the American Cancer Society.

"You can throw out statistics all you want about the impact of this disease," says Mr. Ely, who is serving as a spokesman for the Race for the Cure. "Unless you come face to face with it, you really don't appreciate what the impact is. The movies don't do this disease justice. It's ugly. And it's devastating."

For the six years that Priscilla Ely fought her fatal disease, her husband struggled with her, enduring all the same giddy peaks of hope and all the cruel setbacks until she died last January.

She was in the shower when she found the walnut-sized lump in February 1988. It should have been found much sooner, her husband says.

Priscilla was the sort of woman who persuaded friends to have regular mammograms, the breast X-rays that can detect the tiniest and most "curable" tumors, and would even accompany them to the radiologist's office, he says.

The American Cancer Society recommends all women have a screening mammogram by age 40; a mammogram every one to two years between the ages of 40 to 49 and a mammogram every year over the age of 50. Women should also receive a clinical physical examination of the breast once every three years from the ages of 20 to 40 and once every year after that.

Always vigilant about her health, Mrs. Ely had had a baseline mammogram 15 months before she discovered the tumor in her breast.

"Probably the most tragic thing from our experience is that we had mammography that showed it [the spot] and the doctor didn't pick up on it," Mr. Ely says. "It wasn't picked up until the spot . . . turned into a lump, and then there was a steady progression."

It is Mr. Ely's gift to his wife to talk about their journey toward her death, revisiting the weeks of despair as well as the poignant ceremony last year in which they renewed their wedding vows.

He remains awed by the courage Priscilla showed at confronting her condition, even to the point where she made the arrangements for hospice care at home.

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