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George MacGillis, Veteran and Male Breast Cancer Survivor

Coast Guard Helicopter Hero Faces Down His Own Breast Cancer


Updated September 14, 2010

George MacGillis, Retired Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot

George MacGillis, Retired Coast Guard Helicopter Pilot

Photo © Diane MacGillis

George MacGillis is a nine-year male breast cancer survivor. He spent 26 years in the Coast Guard as a helicopter Flight Engineer and Rescue Hoist operator. George has delivered 18 babies in the back of a helicopter, and survived an aircraft crash with many broken bones. He is a disabled veteran who is coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). George has lived through near death situations many times. As part of his Coast Guard duties, he has picked up bodies from plane crashes in Alaska. Sometimes he would come back to the Air Station with his green flight suit red with other people's blood. He would go out behind the hangar to the trash dumpster and strip to his skin, then throw all the clothes away. He would walk straight into the shower room and stay there, trying to wash the blood from his skin and mind. In 2001, he faced a new enemy - breast cancer. George has his own spin on the Harley Pink Label slogan: "I'm not a Woman, A Daughter, A Sister or A Mother - but I'm a Friend, A Fighter, A Rider, and I'm A Male Breast Cancer Survivor!"

George MacGillis is one tough hero, who had to insist on medical attention to save his own life. He tells his story of surviving male breast cancer here.

George's Male Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Age at diagnosis: 51
Breast cancer type: A type of Invasive Breast Cancer
Lymph Node Status: N2
Tumor Description: 2.4cm, Stage 2
Treatments: Lumpectomy, Taxol chemotherapy
Hormonal Therapy: Tamoxifen
Time in Remission: 9 years

From Sore Nipple to Surgery

I didn't have what you would call a normal lump; I had a very sore nipple. It was also soft and didn't feel lumpy. I went to the doctor many times because of the pain, and then I guess they just wanted to get me out of their hair. So they set me up with a day surgery to do an open surgical biopsy, under mild sedation. My surgeon did tell the nurse that this wasn't going to be anything more than a cyst. He opened it up and I remember him telling the nurse "Lumpectomy!" and I woke up in the hospital recovery room about 5 hours later, with a bandage on my chest, both arms over my head and my armpits with drains in them.

Hard Times In Treatment

So what they had done was to remove a large chunk of breast tissue and lymph nodes under both arms. Then the hard times started - even before I left the hospital my chemo port was installed. I remember wanting to die at times. I was so sick and hurt everywhere during treatment. While in chemo, I passed 8 kidney stones and didn't realize it until later. Talk about pain! If it hadn't been for my family giving me support, I would have been alone. But that's when I in was deep into struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder - PTSD.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I made it through and recovered and have been cancer free until now. In early September of 2010, I found a large lump on my left shoulder and neck area. I had one CT and an MRI to check it out. When I had a needle biopsy done on it, it turned out to be a fluid-filled cyst, which they drained on the spot.

A Family History of Survival

Here's a little about my family history - my mother and her 5 sisters all had breast cancer. All of them lived into their 80's and 90's. I had one male cousin who also had breast cancer. I don't let this diagnosis define me - I had cancer but that is only a small part of me. My mind is held together with a very fine thread, and my body with plates and screws. I'm not your normal breast cancer survivor, but I have endured this and many other challenges.

Advice For Men With A Family History Of Breast Cancer

Insist on a mammogram and ultrasound exam, even if you don't feel anything lumpy. It's very hard to detect it on a man using just your fingers. Remember that not every breast cancer feels hard - mine was soft.

Life Has Changed

Now I have a mammogram and ultrasound done every year. In 2005, near the end of my Tamoxifen therapy, my wife of 33 years died from Muscular Dystrophy. She was very supportive of me. I have recently remarried and my new wife and I enjoy riding our 2010 Harley Davidson TriGlide Trike. Also, I'm doing something that I have thought about for many years. I signed up for Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, but I'm not sure that I can do it. I'll be in the survivors' tent wearing a pink T-shirt. I hope they have a size 2X shirt!

Men Can Take Charge Of Their Breast Health

What stands out to me from George's story is that he would not give up when he realized that something was wrong with his breast. Having seen his family members go through diagnosis and treatment, he knew that his own breast cancer risk might be high. He could have disregarded his symptoms, taken painkillers, and accepted the doctor's opinion. George chose the more difficult path of advocating for his own biopsy. His proactive actions are what saved his own life. Every man can do his own breast self-exam, and keep a record of his family health history. Instead of receiving a late diagnosis of breast cancer, men can practice early detection, healthy lifestyles, and greater awareness of their own breast health.

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