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Stories of Hope

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By the end of the year, Delaware will have reported 570 new female breast cancer cases. Of those, 110 will be fatal. Among men, the state is expected to have five new cases and one death.

The news is bittersweet. Delaware’s incidence of breast cancer is now less than the national average, but our breast cancer mortality rate is higher: The state ranks sixth in the country. Though that’s an improvement from Delaware’s No. 2 ranking in 1996, there is much room for improvement.

There is hope. Thanks to new technologies, treatments and organizations that preach the importance of early detection and self-exams, men and women are fighting back.

For National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the following survivors have shared their journeys, from the shattering moments of receiving the diagnosis to the victorious final treatments. And they share those stories for one reason: To tell those who may be battling breast cancer or love someone who is, that they’re not alone.

 


KINDRED SPIRITS: Breast cancer survivors (from left) Kay Web of Milton, Carl Hilbert of Wilmington and Kelly Shelton of Dover.

Photograph © by Kevin Fleming

 

Looking Forward

The candles were lit, the

Sesame Street

balloons were arranged and the presents were piling up. But for Kay Webb of Milton, the party would not be a happy one. Her grandson was celebrating his first birthday, “And all I could think was I’d never see his second,” Webb says. “I went into the bathroom and cried.”

A year before, she’d found a lump on her right breast. “I was so scared that I didn’t tell my husband until Sunday night because he’d only worry,” she says. The couple went to the gynecologist’s office the next morning. Within days, Webb would be fighting for her life.

After performing a lumpectomy, surgeon Jonathan Mandell of Beebe Medical Center in Lewes called Webb at work with a diagnosis of Stage II invasive breast cancer. “It threw me,” she recalls. “It really hit me for the first time that I could die.”

Webb sought a second opinion at the Limestone Medical Center in Wilmington. Doctors, surgeons and oncologists agreed a mastectomy was necessary. The cancer was spreading rapidly to 10 lymph nodes.

“I know that some women wouldn’t think twice about (having a mastectomy), but I did,” Webb says. “It was hard for me because I’m a woman, and losing that breast, you know, it was a part of me.”

That was in 1993. Webb, then a clerk at the Lewes Post Office, was 49.

“You’re looking forward to life—your retirement and your grandchildren,” she says. “You think none of that is going to happen because the doctors aren’t hesitating to tell you how serious your cancer is.”

A few weeks after surgery, Webb took part in a clinical trial at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. She endured three days of exhausting high-dose chemo, bone scans and cat scans.

“Kaye’s treatment would have been different today,” says Isabel Benson, nurse manager of the Tunnel Cancer Center at Beebe. “She could have been prescribed Neupogen or Neulasta, drugs that fight infection and increase the white blood count more quickly after each dose of chemo.”

Nor were Procrit or Aranesp available to Webb. Both medications speed the development of stem cells into red blood cells, which help reduce anemia.

After the trials, Webb endured seven weeks of radiation at the Peninsula Regional Health System in Salisbury, Maryland, (Beebe did not offer radiation at the time) while working full-time in Lewes. “You do what you have to do,” Webb says.

She’s still doing much of it. Duke monitored Webb’s progress through 2001, her oncologist cleared her in 2005 and she still sees a radiologist. Yet annual mammograms are terrifying. “I’m not scared of the test. I’m scared of the result,” she says. “That’ll never change.”

What has changed is Webb. “I would never speak up for myself before the cancer, and now I talk in front of groups,” she says. “I am not an athlete at all, but since the cancer, I’ve flown on a hot air balloon and walked a half-marathon.”

Webb also works part-time for the Wellness Community of Delaware, a statewide nonprofit that provides support and education to people dealing with cancer. “I just felt like I needed to help other people going through this,” she says.

The ordeal also strengthened Webb’s marriage. “(Elwood and I) learned that nobody guarantees tomorrow and we need to be with our family and friends whenever the opportunities arise,” she says. “I’m telling you, if something, anything, is within reach, you’ve got to grab it.”

Webb’s grandson just turned 13. “I’m here to see it,” she says. “But even if I’m not here next year, I know I’ve enjoyed all my grandkids to the fullest. I’ll leave with no regrets.”

A Guy Thing

Carl Hilbert of Wilmington calls himself a typical guy.

“I die with the Eagles and Phillies every year, and I’ve had some pretty fast cars for drag racing,” he says. He isn’t always right, but, he says, seldom is he wrong. He claims exceptional navigational skills and rarely needs to ask for directions.

Hilbert is also a loving husband, a lifelong non-smoker and a breast cancer survivor.

When he was diagnosed two years ago, he had no idea that men could even get the disease—especially healthy, affluent men with no family history of it. “Once it sank in, I was concerned and a little scared,” Hilbert says, “But then I thought, OK, let’s just get on with it.”

Hilbert’s wife of 46 years, however, was terrified—and still is. “I never really thought about dying until then,” says Betty Hilbert, 70. “I felt so helpless because I’d go to a gynecologist, but where do men go?”

Hilbert’s mission was to find the answer.

Hilbert, now 71, had just retired after a 37-year career at DuPont. He’d planned to refine his garden, but instead found himself on a whirlwind medical journey.

Of the 41,430 people who will die from breast cancer in the United States in 2006, 460 of them will be men. “In Delaware, about seven men a year are diagnosed with breast cancer,” says Valerie Mullen Pletcher, co-executive director of Cancer Care Connection, a resource and referral agency in Newark.

In October 2003 Hilbert noticed blood on his left nipple. He contacted his general practitioner, who called it inconsequential. Betty suspected otherwise.

“Blood is a big symptom in a woman for breast cancer,” she says. “But the doctor didn’t seem to be concerned, and we thought, well, maybe men are different.”

They aren’t.

The blood reappeared in April 2004. Hilbert was directed to J. Wesley Clayton III, a general surgeon affiliated with Christiana Hospital, who found a lump in Hilbert’s left breast. Clayton immediately ordered a mammogram, which showed that Hilbert’s cancer was in both breasts. Clayton performed lumpectomies on both breasts and took samples for a biopsy to determine if the cancer was invasive.

The cancer was fully contained in the left breast (the one that bled), but had spread on Hilbert’s right side (the breast that looked normal).

Dr. Charles Schneider, an oncologist at Medical Oncology Hematology Consultants in Newark, recommended a bilateral mastectomy. Hilbert sought and received a second opinion at Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia. On June 30, 2004, Clayton performed the mastectomy.

Hilbert underwent a new procedure, sentinel lymph node biopsy, which causes fewer problems than surgery that removed all the lymph nodes from under the arm (an axillary lymph node dissection).

“We used to take out quite a bit of tissue, and with that came swelling and nerve problems,” says Clayton. “What we’ve learned is that some of the cancer will first go to the sentinel nodes. We inject radioactive material, which is picked up by one or two sentinel nodes that would most likely pick up the cancer.” Surgeons then remove the affected sentinal nodes.

After the surgery, Hilbert was clear of cancer. He needed no further treatment, and he declined reconstructive surgery of his breast. “I got nothing there,” he says, referring to his nippleless chest. “I would rather it weren’t like that, but it’s OK.”

Breast cancer forced him to confront his masculinity. “I learned that the sign of a real man is to do what’s right,” he says. “To hell with what some guys might think. I am not concerned about being politically correct with others who might have some kind of cultural hangup. I just want to get the message out.”

Hilbert underwent extensive mentor training at the Helen Graham Center’s Cancer Campaign Program, believing men might start talking about breast cancer if they find out they’re not alone. But when asked how many men have taken advantage of his services, Hilbert sighs.

“A big, fat zero,” he says.

Learning What

You’re Made Of

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