Between 1980 and 1985, Paul played six seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL teams.
Part of this story is an excerpt from one originally featured on http://www.playerstrust.com/.”
Both my parents were gone and I was set to go back to Hawaii to sell our family home. About a week and a half prior to the trip I was just on the sofa yawning, and I ran my hand across my chest and I felt the lump. My mother was a breast cancer survivor, so I made that assumption right away.
I was debating whether to tell my wife or not, because I wanted to make sure that it didn’t distract us from what we had to do when we went to Hawaii. But after thinking about it, I knew I had to tell her. She was devastated, and ended up saying, maybe we shouldn’t go, instead we should stay and go to the doctor right away. I said, “Look, a couple of weeks is not going to make a difference. I need to do this and be there for my family, and get the estate and house taken care of.”
She agreed reluctantly, and I didn’t even tell my four other siblings about it, so nobody else in my family knew that I had this lump. About two weeks later I came back and went to my primary care physician first. My previous checkups were basically that I’d walk in, he’d say “How are you doing Paul?” and I’d say “Fine”. And then we’d just talk football or something else. But this time, he looked at me, felt the lump, and said, “That’s suspicious.” And that word “suspicious” starts to confirm in my head what I was already thinking. So, I went to radiology, they gave me an ultrasound, and I got my first mammogram.
I have a different respect for women now when they get mammograms. I walked into the room and the technician gave me a puzzled look. Not knowing that men can get breast cancer, the experience of a mammogram really wasn’t on my radar. So, I’m looking at her, pointing at my breast, and wondering how I’m going to get it into that machine. I looked like a contortionist trying to get myself into it.
After that I had to go get a biopsy, because you just can’t see enough from a mammogram or ultrasound. I went to a surgeon, and I’m sitting in this waiting room with all women, and she yells my name out. I’m like, “Wait! Keep this on the down low!”
I walked in the room and there’s a pink apron laid out – all these things are starting to connect now. I go across the hallway to get a biopsy, and my wife has her face in her hands as the surgery begins. Being an ex-player, we’ve been on enough training tables that it really wasn’t bothering me yet. But then, all of a sudden, another surgeon walks in, and then another technician, and another, and so on. That’s when it hit me, that they don’t see this very often. What’s next, are they going to start selling popcorn? I realized then and there that this is different.
A week later, I get a call from the surgeon’s office, and they said that everything looked OK, which gave me a little sigh of relief. But a couple of days later, I get a call from the surgeon himself. He said, “Paul, your worst fears are realized. It’s an invasive carcinoma.” As a male, breast cancer is really not on our radar.
The next step was surgery. When I heard the news, I wasn’t crushed or devastated or anxious. For a brief second after I got the information, I had this little twist in my stomach, and then I was ready to take care of it. I went into football mode and wanted to know how I could get back on the field. I’ve always taken care of myself. I eat well, I exercise, I’ve been the same weight since I played football thirty-some years ago.
My work week at the salon is Wednesday-Saturday. I got operated on a Monday, and went back to work that same week. If I had high blood pressure, or was extremely overweight, if I had diabetes or other conditions, there’s no way I could’ve done that. None of my clients even knew I had breast cancer for two years.
My surgeon gave me some great advice, and told me that I shouldn’t feel like I have to tell people right away. I’d know when the time was right. He was exactly right. The hard part for me was, working with women in my profession, hearing them go through the same struggle and feel their emotion. As a hairdresser, part of our job is very personal, and people like to share their lives. It was hard not to be able to empathize with them, but I wasn’t ready for that.
A couple of years had passed, and as I continued to deal with the passing of my parents, I knew that they would want me to help other people. I’m a former NFL player, a hairdresser, and a breast cancer survivor – I had a unique platform to talk about early detection, awareness, health, nutrition. And to me, eventually in life, your health is your wealth.
Now that my story is out, I’ve worked with the American Cancer Society on a lot of breast cancer events like Relay for Life. And just talking to whomever I can talk to. I spoke to one of the largest hair academies, I’ve had opportunities to speak at the Manning Passing Academy. I spoke last year to 1,250 kids, and while cancer wasn’t the focus of it, I got a standing ovation when I told them I was a breast cancer survivor. Cancer touches everyone in some way, shape or form.
I’m now on an advisory committee for Florida Hospital to build a breast cancer unit on one of their campuses. It’s interesting because the message is the same with breast cancer detection, it is just a different messenger. I think it’s a great platform and opportunity. A lot of times ex-players use their football notoriety to affect other people, and hopefully I can help change the dialogue amongst men that you have to talk about it, and be aware of it. If you start looking at your family history and some of the precursors, you may very well be in a situation you should keep an eye on.
I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to be a hairdresser. But I believe that God puts things in our lives, but you have to be available to see it and understand it. I didn’t want breast cancer, and I didn’t want to be a hairdresser necessarily, but these things have given me an opportunity that I wouldn’t have ever had otherwise.
I enjoy and love people, and work with women all day in my profession. But being around women this much has given me insight into how I relate to breast cancer and my message that I deliver. Because they go through a very different emotional roller coaster than I went through, but it’s the same disease. That has helped me tremendously to bring together my message.