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Ralph Bell: Male Breast Cancer Survivor

by Peter on June 21, 2010

The first time that I sat down with Ralph Bell was at a pink glove society event one Saturday afternoon. We instantly connected because of his military background with the Air Force and the fact that he used to smoke the same brand of cigarettes as my father did during the Vietnam war, Winston let me know that we were going to get along. Well, Ralph is a kind man who has a heart to help people. I hear it in his words and I saw the passion in his eyes. Although we only spoke for about 30 mins I got to know a lot of him and I had the please of meeting his wife. I knew instantly that Ralph needed to be the second man in the breast cancer photo shoot and I was even more excited when he agreed to do it.

Last October Katy Ruth Camp of the Marietta Daily Journal wrote a story about him that I thought was pretty inspiring so I thought it would be best to let you read it yourself. Enjoy.


Ralph Bell of Marietta has a message for men: You, too, can get breast cancer.

“It’s rare, but it is possible,” said Bell, who is himself a survivor. “I’ve spoken to women’s groups since my recovery about the importance of early detection, of doing self exams, and there are always some who look at me like I couldn’t understand. But I went through the same sort of protocols and ups and downs as women who have had breast cancer. It’s not just a woman’s disease.”

On a Friday afternoon in April 2004, Bell, then 56, was sitting on his living-room couch. He had recently been laid off from his job as a senior executive at a health-care support firm. He was contemplating his future, praying for God to give his life a purpose.

He happened to run his right hand along his left chest muscle when he felt something odd.

“It felt like a pimple, but it was too deep in the tissue to be a pimple. I don’t know why, but I just knew at that moment it was cancer,” Bell said.

And he knew he had found his purpose.

With only two weeks of health insurance left, Bell immediately called the doctor and by 3 p.m., he was sitting in a patient room. The doctor agreed the bump was suspicious, and helped fast-track further tests.

Bell had a mammogram the following Monday, a surgical consult on Tuesday and a lumpectomy on Wednesday.

“As I was laying on the gurney being rolled out of surgery, the doctor told me not to worry, that he still didn’t think it was cancer. But something just told me that it was. So when he brought me in his office the next Thursday and gave me the news that it was Stage 1 breast cancer, I was prepared because I knew already,” Bell said.

The lump had grown to over half a centimeter in size, and had spread to some of his lymph nodes. The next month, all of the tissue in his left breast, as well as 14 lymph nodes, were removed in a mastectomy.

“Men don’t really say we have breasts, though. I like to say I had my chest tissue removed,” Bell said, with a laugh.

He was then told he would have to take medication every day for five years. It would target the cancer cells and shrink his chances of developing the cancer again to 10 percent. He was also given the option to undergo chemotherapy, which would further reduce his chances to 5 percent.

“I had heard about chemotherapy and what it can do to you. I thought, if it’s not going to help that much, I don’t want to do it,” Bell said.

But when he began speaking to a friend about his plans to lead a cancer-support group, he changed his mind.

“He said, ‘How are you going to help people who are going through chemotherapy if you can’t empathize with them?’ I realized then that it was something I needed to do,” Bell said.

In September 2004, Bell began chemotherapy treatment. He lost his hair after the first visit, and saw a cardiologist to make sure it was not damaging his heart.

After the second treatment, however, Bell knew something was not right. He began having difficulty urinating and felt his body was beginning to shut down. His treatments were stopped, and he was put back on medication. But weeks later, something was still wrong.

“My oncologist’s nurse just happened to call me, so I told her that the chemo had really affected me. I was staying in bed until 10 or 11 in the morning, I had no motivation, no ambition, and honestly had small bouts of what I thought was depression. I would just be laying on the couch and would start crying, out of nowhere. None of this was like me. I was usually always on the go, always out and about. So she said, ‘Well, Ralph, that medication we’ve been giving you is actually estrogen. So it sounds like you have PMS.’ My wife got a real kick out of that,” Bell said.

Bell’s wife, Jerri, said Bell stayed strong throughout his treatments.

“He is a very positive person, so he probably took it better than I did. But he had his moments, so I guess he can understand now how I feel when I have mine. We definitely spent many nights seeing who was going to kick the covers off first from hot flashes,” Jerri said with a laugh.

Bell is now using his experience to help others. He serves as a spokesman for the American Cancer Society and is a counselor at the Pastoral Counseling Center of Roswell Street Baptist Church. He graduated from the Covington Theological Seminary in 2008, and his counseling service now includes divorce, addiction and grief counseling.

Breast cancer is diagnosed in more than 1,700 American men each year, according to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. And as many as 30 percent of male patients die of breast cancer because it is found in later stages, Bell said.

“Your body is a finely tuned machine. If you’re not feeling well, your body is telling you something. I am the same way as most men – you don’t want to go to the doctor unless it’s something drastic. But getting a check-up is a lot less painful than letting cancer spread,” Bell said.

“A lot of times, people say well, it is what it is. That’s not true. It’s what you make of it,” Bell said. “I tell a lot of people, feel blessed that you have cancer. What a blessing you’ve been given, to have time to live your life instead of having your life taken from you in a split second. Every day I wake up in the morning and say the same prayer: ‘Lord, let me be a blessing to someone today.’ But you have to be prepared before you say that prayer, because let me tell you – He will.”

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