This article was written by Sara Watkins for GCUA.
The color pink can be seen everywhere during the month of October, symbolizing the global health campaign for Breast Cancer Awareness. While the disease has touched nearly everyone in some way, not all aspects of breast cancer are quite so “pink.” A disease widely attributed to women, it is not unheard of for men to be diagnosed with breast cancer, too.
Eric Dunlap, CDC Federal Credit Union’s vice president of mortgage lending, has firsthand knowledge of the much rarer side of breast cancer, as he was diagnosed with it at the age of 34.
According to the American Cancer Society, around 2,250 cases will be diagnosed in 2018, 480 of them resulting in death. While men are nearly 100 times less likely to get breast cancer than women, their survival rate is much lower, due to late detection and a general lack of awareness.
“A lot of men who are diagnosed with breast cancer don’t want to talk about it,” Dunlap said. “They feel it’s stigmatized, it’s a woman’s disease; everything is pink, so they shy away from it. I look at it as an opportunity to not be shunned, but to share that it can happen. While I respect others who don’t want to discuss it, I feel like if I don’t, I’m doing a disservice to other men.”
Not one to sit idly by, Dunlap has spent his time as a cancer survivor advocating for a better understanding of male breast cancer. He uses his voice to tell his story with the goal of raising awareness and funds to provide further research, as well as to help others who have found themselves in a similar situation.
Discovery, Diagnosis and Treatment
In 2000, Dunlap was exercising at home when he felt a sudden pain in his chest. Unable to get off the ground, he called to his wife for help. As she tried to help him stand, the pain became unbearable. As he clutched the right side of his chest, he felt a lump.
Dunlap saw his doctor the following day and was sent to a surgical oncologist the day after that. The surgeon performed a biopsy and the results, which were reviewed by seven different pathologists, came in a few days later: he had cancer.
Unfortunately, Dunlap has a family history of breast cancer. As a young child, he watched the disease claim his grandmother’s life. His mother is a two-time survivor. She was first diagnosed at 55, four years prior to her son’s diagnosis. During her treatment, he accompanied his mom to her appointments and built a solid relationship with her surgical oncologist, Dr. Toncred Styblo at Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute.
“I got to know her leading up to Mom’s surgery,” Dunlap said. “We would talk and I would ask her very in-depth questions about what was going to happen to my mom and then I would think about how we could care for her. I wanted to know how to make my mom whole again because I saw what had happened to my grandmother.”
It was going to take some time to get an appointment with Dr. Styblo. Dunlap broke the news via phone call to his mother, who abruptly hung up when he mentioned it would take weeks for him to see her surgical oncologist
Five minutes later, he received a phone call from Dr. Styblo’s office. She would see him the next day.
“I said, ‘Oh, I thought it was going to be two weeks.’ And they said, ‘Well, your mother called,’” Dunlap remembered. “Whatever Mom said, I don’t know. But never underestimate the power of a mother!”
Once Dr. Styblo confirmed Dunlap’s original diagnosis, he officially became her patient and they began a treatment plan. He underwent a radical mastectomy and lymph nod
e dissection, accompanied by simultaneous reconstructive surgery. The breast tissue from the right side of his chest was removed and replaced with extracted muscle from his back in order to make his chest appear symmetrical.
“I had this really horrible impression in my mind of how I was going to look,” Dunlap said. “I’m in recovery looking down at my chest and I can still see hair on it, so I was wondering what did – or didn’t – happen. The right side of my chest was looking pretty good at that point. They went underneath, so you wouldn’t be able to see anything. I have a scar on my back, but that’s it. I had a very, very good surgical oncologist who is world-renowned, although I didn’t know that until later.”
Dunlap healed from the surgery, began physical therapy, then underwent six months of aggressive chemotherapy treatments. During the lymph node dissection portion of his surgery, some of his lymph nodes came back positive for cancer.
“Once cancer hits your lymph nodes, it can spread to other parts of your body,” he explained. “My body was negatively impacted as far as my organ involvement and things of that nature, so aggressive chemo would work to kill any microcells that might be there that had replicated in the cancerous state.”
During treatment, Dunlap began to see things in a different light. For instance, he would sometimes skip using an umbrella when it rained, just to feel the water on his face.
“Cancer changed my life forever, my perspective on things, how I view things, what I take seriously,” he said. “I mean, I did all kinds of crazy – even childlike – things that opened my eyes. I don’t know if anything else could have opened them that way. I was determined to enjoy life more.”
Paying it Forward
It was in that spirit, and after some initial hesitation, that Dunlap took a call from someone at the American Cancer Society who had reached out to simply chat about his journey with cancer. He thought she was a physician or nurse, since she knew details about the disease. He was blown away to learn that she, too, was a cancer survivor.
“I decided that I would try to pay it forward and make sure if people were diagnosed that I would also be an advocate or a person they could talk to,” he said. “People need help with the detail getting through it. They need support and someone they can call and talk to in the middle of the night.”
Dunlap credits his wife and their family and friends with helping him get through his fight against cancer, but he knows not everyone is as lucky.
“I had a great support structure, but some people don’t have that,” he said. “So I try to imagine what it would be like to fight it with no support system. It has to be twice as hard, maybe even ten times harder.”
In addition to helping individuals who had been diagnosed with breast cancer one on one, Dunlap realized sharing his cancer journey could have an even wider impact on others. He began a sort of pilgrimage, calling every radio and television station in Georgia. He offered to tell his story, since it was so unusual for a man to have breast cancer.
“I wanted others to be aware, so they could be on that pathway to discovery with their physicians and ask questions and share any history of cancer in the family – whether it be their mother or father or sister – in order to help uncover if there’s a genetic connection, or any possibility of a genetic connection,” he said.
Most of the stations said they would rather wait for breast cancer awareness month, but Dunlap persevered. In the end, it was a local hip hop radio station that wanted to share his story right immediately.
It wasn’t long before Dunlap’s phone began to ring. He received requests to speak at support groups and eventually the American Cancer Society caught wind of his story and invited him to join their speaker’s bureau. He readily accepted and
has served on their bureau for over 17 years, telling his story, working on different campaigns and even addressing senators and congressmen, mostly in the state of Georgia, about healthcare laws and funding for research.
“Cancer is not a partisan issue,” he said. “It’s a life issue. It doesn’t matter which party you’re in, if you get cancer, you get cancer.” He is quick to point out that everyone knows someone, whether it’s a friend or family member, who has had cancer. “So, what are we going to do about it?”
Getting Involved and Making a Difference
The answer is a no-brainer for CDC Federal Credit Union, which partners with Dunlap as he participates in the American Cancer Society campaign called “Real Men Wear Pink,” in which he wears something pink every single day in October – even on weekends – in order to raise awareness. The credit union encourages associates to wear pink every Friday i
n October as a show of support for Dunlap.
“Breast cancer awareness for women is known worldwide, however, rarely do we hear about how it affects men,” said Betsy Mercier, president and CEO. “Learning about Eric Dunlap’s courageous story of breast cancer survival, our CDC Federal Credit Union family rallied around him on this important issue to assist in raising awareness and funding.”
CDC Federal Credit Union is holding their own Pink Ribbon Campaign during Breast Cancer Awareness month. Pink ribbons are sold to associates and members in honor of survivors, those currently undergoing treatment and in memory of loved ones who have lost their lives to the disease. All proceeds go directly to the American Cancer Society. Last year, the credit union raised and donated nearly $2,500.
“One of the things that’s so incredible about the credit union I work for is that the people there really make you feel like family,” Dunlap said. “They knew my cause before they hired me. I’ve been here for four years and one of the things that drew me to them is that the American Cancer Society is one of their select employee groups. They have embraced me not only as their ‘Real Men Wear Pink’ candidate, but also as a participant. I want to celebrate what the credit union is doing. I think it’s incredible.”
Coming from a credit union that prides itself on “making a difference to those who make a difference,” the feeling is mutual.
“Our close affiliation with the amazing health science folks at CDC drives us to align ourselves in support of preventing all diseases that affect our community,” Mercier said. “With that as our mission, we thank Eric for his willingness to share his story and for allowing us the opportunity to make a difference!”
While more men are speaking out about their journey with breast cancer, the numbers could still use some growth. And there is yet more work to do in the way of restructuring preventative measures for men. Something as simple as changing the intake forms in a doctor’s office would at the very least get the conversation started. While it’s common for women to be asked about their family history concerning breast cancer, the same is not true for men.
Dunlap lectures medical professionals and pathologists on this and other subjects as much as possible to further his cause. He even has a challenge he would like to extend to a yet-to-be-named large company because he knows partnerships are key.
“There is an establishment that many of us visit often and I am going to challenge them and say, will you join us in the fight, will you help us?” he said.
That big reveal is a work in progress and more details are expected to emerge soon.
Living Life to the Fullest
At the height of his battle with breast cancer, Dunlap prayed one prayer constantly: that he would be able to see his sons graduate from high school. His prayer, along with many others, has been answered.
“My oldest son, now 22, officially graduated this summer from Georgia State University, but the ceremony will be held in December,” he said. “When he walks across that stage… I’ve got to be the proudest Dad in the world. To see him accomplish this, it’s quite a milestone. As much as it is for him, it’s for me, too.”
The next milestone is a big one – Dunlap wants to reach 20 years cancer free. He has some time to plan what will most certainly be a grand celebration, but one thing is for sure: There will be dancing.
Back when Dunlap was a boy, holding his grandmother’s hand as she suffered in pain at the end of her life, he vowed out loud that he would someday do something about cancer. His Nana, who hadn’t spoken in days, opened her eyes wide, squeezed her grandson’s hand and said her last words here on earth: “I know you will.”
And done something he has. Eric Dunlap, breast cancer survivor, is keeping the promise he made to his grandmother all those years ago.
Also featured in: CU Today