Local cancer survivor battles gender stereotypes

Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, poses for a portrait Friday morning at Neubauer, Pelkey and Goldfinger, LLP. A breast cancer survivor, Pelkey said the most dangerous aspect of male breast cancer is a tendency to believe the disease only affects women, causing men to ignore the symptoms until it’s too late.

When Rep. Charles Pelkey’s, D-Laramie, uncle died in 1994, it was a devastating loss that likely saved Pelkey’s life, he said.

“My Uncle Phillip died of breast cancer,” Pelkey said.

Despite breast cancer awareness increasing across the nation, the disease is viewed as gender-specific. While women account for 99 percent of breast cancer diagnoses, the American Cancer Society estimates about 2,470 men in the U.S. will be diagnosed with the disease in 2017 and about 460 will die from it.

“I’m a 1-percenter,” Pelkey joked. “Not one of the elite with all the wealth and glory, but I am one of the lucky few (men) to be diagnosed with breast cancer.”

He said he received the diagnosis after discovering a lump on his chest while riding his bike, but he might have ignored the lump if not for his uncle.

“Had my uncle not died from breast cancer, I probably wouldn’t have given much thought,” Pelkey said. “Well, it was a pretty odd lump, so maybe I would have reacted. But given my family history, I was pretty aware of what the possibilities were.”

As bad as it was finding out he had life-threatening disease was, his day continued to slide downhill.

“I got my cancer diagnosis on the same day I was laid off from a job I had worked for 17 years,” Pelkey recalled. “It was a bad day all around.”

With a wife and two children, the news hit hard at home.

“It was difficult for both my kids, but they were keenly aware of what happened to my uncle,” he said. “My wife ended up taking a job largely because we needed the health insurance.”

Born in Germany to a Yugoslavian war refugee and American soldier, Pelkey was no stranger to adversity. He took the news in stride.

“The cancer diagnosis was somewhat devastating,” Pelkey said. “But I was comfortable with the fact it was caught early.”

The first step on the road to survival was a lumpectomy, a surgical process to remove abnormal breast tissue. Unfortunately, Pelkey’s unlucky streak wasn’t quite complete.

“I wasn’t in a total panic yet,” he said. “I had a lumpectomy that wasn’t successful, because the margins weren’t complete. I got a little more worried after that, but then I had a double mastectomy and six months of chemo.”

Despite suffering a variety of medical issues, including discovering a genetic mutation, which makes him more susceptible to other forms of cancer, he said the breast cancer hasn’t returned.

“For the first five years (after being diagnosed), I was at my oncologist every three months,” Pelkey said. “I’m prone to a number of cancers because of the genetic mutation I carry — BRCA2.”

Specific inherited mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2, human genes that produce tumor suppressor proteins, increase the risk of female breast and ovarian cancers, and they have been associated with increased risks of several additional types of cancer, the National Cancer Institute reports.

Defeating cancer was a years-long battle that rewarded Pelkey with a new perspective on life, but defeating the stereotypes and misinformation surrounding male breast cancer is a war he continues to wage.

“I did get a couple weird reactions from people,” he said. “Somebody actually asked if my children were mine, because they thought I was a hermaphrodite or something.”

It’s a reaction he laughs off nowadays, but he said it highlights the real threat of the disease.

“The danger of assuming it’s a woman’s disease is if men do show signs, the might tend to ignore it,” Pelkey said.

Working with organizations such as the Male Breast Cancer Coalition, he said he’s spent recent years telling his story to raise awareness of male susceptibility to the disease.

“I think the most important thing I can do is be open,” Pelkey said. “If just being open and honest about breast cancer convinces a guy to go to the doc, then it’s worth it.”

His efforts haven’t gone unnoticed.

While October is Breast Cancer Awareness month nationwide, Gov. Matt Mead took the topic a step further this year and proclaimed Oct. 15-21 Male Breast Cancer Awareness week.

“People generally think of breast cancer as affecting only women, yet an estimated 2,470 men are diagnosed each year,” Mead writes in an email.

“Early detection of male breast cancer is key in treating and hopefully defeating the disease. Bringing awareness to this issue may help save lives.”

Pelkey said the governor’s proclamation was a tremendous step in the right direction.

“Plenty of states proclaim October Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but the governor of Wyoming took that extra step,” he said.

“In the case of women’s breast cancer awareness, the progress has been immense. But it’s taken a little longer to get that awareness out there for men.”

It’s an errand Pelkey said he plans to chase for years to come.

Despite his brush with death, he said he’s a better man for dueling the deadly disease.

“I’m lucky we caught it early,” Pelkey said. “But in terms of it affecting my life, it’s only been a positive.

“My life is probably better now than before I had cancer, and I had a pretty good life before that. It changed my perspective on everything. I value every day I’ve got, because I count it as a bonus.”

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