“I saw a spot of blood on my shirt after doing yard work,” began 17-year breast cancer survivor Eric Dunlap, sharing the story of how he discovered a lump in his chest that would later change his life forever.
“I didn’t recognize this a possible sign of breast cancer, because it was blood and I thought, instead, it was a scratch.”
Later on, Dunlap went inside to check and took a shower to get rid of the blood. His wife then asked him if he actually took a shower because she saw the spot of blood again. He looked under his shirt and moved closer to the mirror where he noticed that there was more blood seeping from his right nipple.
Dunlap decided to see a doctor.
“If the blood continues, then come back,” the doctor told him. “If it discontinues then it was just trauma from a limb hitting you or something.”
Dunlap explained that, at the time, health insurances did not typically cover mammograms for men. Nor, did he receive a thorough examination.
Eventually, the blood flow discontinued so Dunlap decided not to follow up with the doctor.
Nearly a year later, Dunlap was completing a vigorous exercise workout in the basement of his home when he began to experience immediately excruciating pain in his chest. He didn’t feel as if he was having a heart attack, but he called out to his wife for help. Instead, he explained, he was unable to stand up by himself and that he was experiencing muscle spasms in his chest.
“I was breathing just fine, so I knew I wasn’t having a heart attack,” Dunlap explained. “But I was feeling extreme pain in my chest. After my wife helped me to my feet, I reached up to clutch my chest and I discovered a lump.”
The next day, Dunlap returned to his doctor because he was concerned after discovering the lump. When his physician questioned how long Dunlap was aware of the lump, Dunlap replied that he found it the night before. The doctor recommended Dunlap see a specialist — a surgical oncologist.
Dunlap said he was shocked the physician recommended him to an oncologist. Dunlap was familiar with what a surgical oncologist does because his mother had been previously diagnosed with breast cancer. Dunlap’s grandmother lost her fight against breast cancer.
Nonetheless, Dunlap visited the oncologist for a needle biopsy. Afterwards, he was told he’d receive the test results in 3-4 days.
By the third day, Dunlap couldn’t wait any longer. During a break at work, he called to speak with the oncologist’s assistant to see if they could share his results over the phone. The assistant placed him on hold.
When she returned, the assistant recommended he come into the office for the results instead. Dunlap insisted that she share the results over the phone, so they could quickly confirm that the mass wasn’t cancerous and he could go back to working out.
He pressed further, which prompted the assistant to put the oncologist on the phone. Finally, after going back and forth with the doctor, Dunlap was told that the lump in his chest was indeed cancerous.
Dunlap was shocked. The oncologist explained that he’d had the sample tested by seven other oncologists. Each time, the results came back the same. Still, Dunlap wanted a second opinion.
Dunlaps contacted the oncologist who’d treated his mom for her breast cancer. He had her team to conduct another biopsy of the mass. The results of that test were the same as the others.
“It was quite the shock being a man who is diagnosed with breast cancer,” Dunlap said about receiving the diagnosis. “I had not heard about men having breast cancer. I also did not know what the diagnosis meant for my life.
“Our kids were young ages 3 and 13 months. My youngest son was not even walking,” he continued. “I did not have time to think or worry.”
According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is about 100 times less common among men than among women.
On the drive home from work, Dunlap constantly thought about being alive for his family and not missing his boys growing up. More than anything, he thought about how he would break the news to his wife, Felecia. “I’ve got to be who she thinks I am, so I have to beat this,” Dunlap said he remembered thinking.
Over the course of the ride, Dunlap found the right words.
“He told me that I am going to beat this!” Felecia Dunlap said, even though her own reaction to his diagnosis was of being “shocked and scared.”
After Dunlap shared the news with his family, he called his mother to let her know the results of the examination. His mother’s reaction was, “I am so sorry.” Dunlap said he didn’t want her to feel like it was her fault because of her own breast cancer journey.
The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be 2,470 new cases of invasive breast cancer and around 460 breast cancer deaths amongst men in the United States this year.
When most men are diagnosed with breast cancer, it is in the later stages of it and the consequences can be severe. According to the American Cancer Society, the average age of a man being diagnosed with breast cancer is 68 years old. Dunlap was half that age — he was only 34 years.
Dunlap was going to have to undergo surgery in order to remove the tumor in his chest as well as to determine whether cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. Afterwards, it was determined that the cancer had reached his lymph nodes, so the oncologist suggested that he would have to undergo chemotherapy.
Before surgery, Dunlap informed the plastic surgeon who would reconstruct his chest that he wanted to make sure that he could go swimming with his kids without people looking at him weirdly. The surgeon made sure that he would be able to do that.
Once the surgery was complete, he was surprised to see that his chest looked the same.
Later, the surgical oncologist informed him that after the surgery, the tumor shrunk in size. This was shocking news to the oncologist.
Dunlap said he knew what it was, it was something divine. Dunlap prayed and so did his support team during this entire journey. He knew that it would take more than prayer to get him through this, but he made sure to recognize God and his abilities to bless the hands that removed the tumor.
Following the surgery, Dunlap’s oncologist explained that there were two courses of treatment available: chemotherapy or radiation. Dunlap completed six months of treatment and said he survived it because he had a supportive team behind him.
His mother, who beat breast cancer twice herself, and his wife stood by him during the entire ordeal.
“We had to keep moving,” Felicia Dunlap recalled. “I had just recently started a new job, so I did not feel comfortable taking a lot of time off from work. My mom came and stayed for a couple of weeks and other family members and friends brought food. Everyone was very supportive.”
Eric Dunlap remembers sharing a treatment room at Winship at Emory Cancer Center with a television he had to share with six other patients. Through the process, got a chance to get to know other breast cancer patients and to connect with them.
Recovery took a while for Dunlap as he had to get used to not being able to do certain things. But one thing he made a point to start doing, was to raise awareness about breast cancer and to encourage others to support the work of organizations like the American Cancer Society.
Dunlap serves as a co-chair for the American Cancer Society Making Strides Against Breast Cancer of Atlanta’s “Real Men Wear Pink” campaign, a month-long push throughout October to raise funds for breast cancer research and awareness.
Last year, more than 2,600 individuals across the country participated in the “Real Men Wear Pink” initiative, raising more than $5.5 million. Together, last year’s Metro Atlanta competitors raised more than $200,000.
“In addition to wearing pink each day during October, these men raise funds and awareness about the issue of breast cancer,” said Susan LaClaire, a corporate relations account manager for the American Cancer Society. “Funds raised allow the Society to help save lives from breast cancer through early detection and prevention, innovative breast cancer research, and patient support.”
“This year in the U.S. more than 240,000 of our daughters, wives, mothers, sisters, and friends will be diagnosed with breast cancer. We are making progress – breast cancer death rates have declined by 36 percent since 1989, which means 249,000 fewer breast cancer deaths,” explained Gary Reedy, CEO of the American Cancer Society and a Real Men Wear Pink alum who is returning for a second time. “I’m proud to take part in Real Men Wear Pink and excited to see so many leaders across the country do the same.”
Dunlap said he hopes that by sharing his story, other men to pay attention to their bodies and that the effort will save lives. Dunlap was considered healthy and had never been hospitalized with an illness before being diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Don’t ignore the signs,” Dunlap appealed to male readers, who tend not to schedule regular doctor visits, but will make sure the oil is changed in their vehicle.
Family motivated Dunlap to get through this journey. His will to live is a spiritual awakening that he is able to share to help save lives. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above please see your doctor.
“Our community can make a huge impact in the fight against breast cancer,” LaClaire said. “We are grateful to Real Men Wear Pink candidates — like Eric Dunlap — for lending their voices to our cause and fighting for everyone touched by breast cancer.”