Carol and Stan are embraced by their son, Paul Burrows about 4 months before Stan's death.
Carol and Stan seen on one of the many cruises they took after receiving Stan's cancer diagnosis.
Stan Burrows enjoys a carousel ride at Minnesota's Mall of America in April of 2007 with his grandson, Luke Fergusson.
Story last updated at 11/11/2009 - 11:52 am
JUNEAU - A seat belt is designed to save a life, but that very item alerted one man to a medical condition that would ultimately take his. On a rare occasion that Stan Burrows found himself on the passenger side of his car instead of in the driver's seat, the safety belt rubbed his chest the wrong way and changed his life forever.
Stan had found a lump that turned out to be breast cancer, the same form that will occur in an estimated 192,370 women in the U.S. this year, according to the American Cancer Society. In men, an estimated 1,910 cases will occur this year, accounting for less than one percent of all breast cancers.
Because breast cancer in males is uncommon, men aren't regularly screened as women are for the disease. By the time the cancer is found, it has often advanced beyond the primary stages. In Stan's case, his cancer had already traveled to his lymph nodes by the time of his mastectomy.
"He only found it because his seat belt hit him there," said Emily Fergusson, Stan's daughter. "He wasn't doing the self-exams that women do, so it was already at later stages by the time we caught it. It was very aggressive."
Stan underwent a mastectomy in Juneau then travelled with his wife, Carol, to Seattle for radiation treatment. As the couple visited various breast cancer treatment centers, Carol was often mistaken as the patient.
"We walked up to the counter and they looked at me and said, 'Can I help you?'" Carol recalled. "I said, 'It's not me, it's him.'"
After returning to Juneau for chemotherapy, Stan thought his battle was over.
"He always had this great attitude," Carol said. "We were doing a senior water aerobics class and the first few times that he went back after his mastectomy, he wore a t-shirt. He was very self conscious, not that he thought people would look at him but that he didn't want to bother other people to have him see his scar. We talked about it and said, this is really good. You never see mastectomy scars on women because women don't expose their chests, so he started doing that. I thought that was really an important kind of mission he was doing. It was kind of exposing to whoever is there that this is what it looks like. It's not that scary."
Stan became willing to tell his story and show his scar with what Carol described as a "very healthy attitude." She attributed his good spirits to the sharing of his story.
"The more you tell it, the more it becomes a reality," Carol said. "He couldn't talk initially about it. He'd say, 'I have cancer,' but he couldn't add 'breast' to it. The more he did it, he finally went up and did a sermon on Sunday and he said it."
Stan had enjoyed preaching from time to time, but this particular sermon still stands out among the rest.
"He got up, walked from the choir stand to the pulpit and he said, 'You've got to excuse me, I have to take my jacket off. I am having hot flashes because of the medication I'm on to treat the breast cancer,'" Fergusson said. "He was able to find the humor in sharing that side of menopause, essentially. The beginning of the sermon was one of those wonderful, chuckling moments."
"By that point he could talk his talk," Carol said. "He could tell his story. The more you tell it, the more you hear yourself and it becomes part of your reality, and then you can frame it however you want. We always preferred to frame it as positively as we could. We took a couple of cruises and did some wonderful trips, but we didn't dwell. We wanted to live life like we had before. We trusted medical people and trusted God and figured whatever was going to happen, we had ourselves in the best of hands. We could go have treatment, then live life."
About a year and a half after Stan's first battle, the same breast cancer returned, this time in his lung. He returned to Seattle and underwent surgery to remove the cancerous tissue. This time, neither chemotherapy nor radiation would be required.
But soon after he was clean again, the disease returned as bone cancer. His health began to deteriorate. As an avid do-it-yourselfer, Stan was forced to give away his lifestyle as he lost his strength.
"He did plumbing, electrical, any kind of handyman stuff," Carol said. "All of a sudden, he couldn't do it. His life just flipped, and that was really hard."
Stan was also a performer in many productions with the Juneau Lyric Opera, including a past production of "The Mikado." Near the end of his life, his vocal chords were overtaken with cancer and he lost his voice.
"That, I think, was one of the most painful things for him to lose, his ability to sing and talk at a normal volume," Fergusson said.
Stan passed away on August 30, 2007. He was five months away from his 60th birthday and only one month away from his 40th wedding anniversary.
Stan's mother and grandmother both had breast cancer before him, and it was later discovered that the hereditary link put Stan and his blood relatives at risk for this cancer, despite their gender. Fergusson looks at the gene that she may have inherited with optimism, seeing early detection as a chance to stick around longer for her two children. Stan's brother, Doug, has also taken a proactive stance in the midst of the possibility that he, too, may have the breast cancer gene. He now has had a mammogram.
"One thing that I always took from him dying is that I need to find the positive in it," Fergusson said. "I think that's a big part of him that I have, that I try to find the good in situations and go on from there. I now know what it's like losing a parent now and I can't imagine leaving a four and a six-year-old at home without a mom, so it's gotten me really aware of what I need to do."
Libby Sterling may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.