By Doris Degner-Foster
Bill Sipp wasn’t afraid to talk about a personal matter to a woman friend, and it may have saved his life — a life that’s too much fun to leave yet.
Bill’s riding career began because his wife, Julie, wanted to vacation in Ireland and ride horses. Before departing they both took some English riding lessons. Since he’d ridden Western in his youth, Bill was confident that he could pick up the new riding style, but he soon found that some things were different. “I learned quickly why you don’t ride English in jeans,” Bill laughed. Outfitted with the proper riding breeches, he adapted and upon returning home, he took up eventing with Julie. He’s been an avid rider and foxhunter for over 25 years.
When the Artillery Fox Hunt in nearby Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, hosted an event, they were introduced to foxhunting and were immediately hooked. Over the years, Bill has ridden with several foxhunts in Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Iowa as a whipper-in, a staff member helping the huntsman with the hounds. Sometimes hunting three or four days a week, he could quickly use up his allotment of vacation days from work.
Bill is a product support manager with Haemonetics, a company that manufactures blood processing machines that can save lives in the operating room by treating and re-infusing a patient’s lost blood back to them. But he never imagined himself on an operating table.
Being The Patient
According to the National Breast Center, only one in 1,000 men will ever be diagnosed with breast cancer. Last October, Bill found a lump in his breast and he didn’t hesitate to bring it to the attention of his doctor, even though his doctor is a woman and good friend. “When you’re going in to get regular exams at the doctor’s office, don’t hold back on things you may think are weird,” Bill advised. “That’s your 15 minutes in front of a paid professional, so get it out; don’t talk about the weather.” He went on to say that making a written list of symptoms and concerns can also be beneficial because it’s easy to forget those details until after leaving the office.
At first he wasn’t too worried because he’d found a breast lump in the past that had proven to be benign, and although he was over 60 years old, his active lifestyle kept him healthy and he felt well. But this time it was different.
His doctor was concerned and ordered a sonogram, which was immediately followed by a mammogram. “When they sent me next door for a mammogram, I wasn’t prepared for it mentally,” Bill remembered. “From that they still couldn’t really tell so then they did a sonogram-guided biopsy. I got the results [that the lump was malignant] on the eve of my 62 birthday last year, October 20th.”
The best plan for Bill’s care was determined after a PET scan, where a radioactive dye is injected followed by a full body scan to determine where else there are actively growing cells. In Bill’s case, there were only a couple of lymph nodes near the breast with the lump that indicated cancerous activity.
“With women, they go back and forth with lumpectomies because they want to save the breast, but to me it didn’t mean anything to get rid of it,” Bill said. “Initially they were just going to do the one and it’s like, well, that’s gonna be kind of weird. Also, since I’d already had this kind of activity, there’s the risk that it’s going to happen again, especially after I found that there were about six or seven women in my family that had breast cancer.”
The Road To Recovery
A double mastectomy surgery with removal of the two lymph nodes was scheduled within two weeks of Bill’s diagnosis. Although he had cancer, he was feeling fine physically and was eager to have the surgery done to get on with recovery.
“I’d say really the worst part of it was right after surgery when I had these drains in [the surgical sites] to deal with,” Bill said. “I had to drain the containers and measure how much drainage there was, which determined when they could pull the drains when it got down to a certain level. I had them in for about a month.”
The drain tubes made getting around difficult, but Bill made it possible to be more mobile by using a simple carpenter’s apron with pockets to hold the ends of the drain tubes with the catch containers. He emphasized that as an outdoors person and rider, the mobility was therapeutic for him. “I think people who ride horses are very motivated not to stay inside and watch TV and get into a downward spiral,” Bill said. “Go out and pet the dogs, pet the horses or whatever, but get outside the house and get into some fresh air. Get moving around — the quicker the better!”
Once Bill had made the decision that all breast tissue from both sides was to be removed, he was glad that he didn’t have to make any more difficult decisions. “Tests indicated that the cancer wasn’t likely to respond significantly enough to recommend chemotherapy,” Bill said.
Each Case Is Unique
Each case and each patient’s recovery is different. Like many breast cancer tumors, Bill’s was estrogen receptive, so he’ll take a drug for 10 years to block any estrogen receptor cells left in his system, and will have follow-up doctor visits to monitor his health. Because he sought medical attention soon after finding the lump, his cancer had been caught early and he only had breast tissue and a few lymph nodes removed. Since the cancer hadn’t spread into muscle, Bill didn’t think his post-operative pain management was as extensive as some other patients’.
“There’s always the question of why, but I’ll never get that answered,” Bill said. He expressed his gratitude that his cancer was caught early at stage one and that with today’s technology, cancer prognosis is more successful than ever. “Diagnosis and treatment is better than even four years ago, not to mention how things were a hundred years ago!”
As he was coping with his illness, Bill heard about others who were also dealing with it and compared his illness with a woman friend who also rides with the same foxhunt club. “She was always so supportive of me and then she was diagnosed with it, too,” Bill said, explaining that she was also coping with reconstructive surgery. She’d joke with Bill about him getting hot flashes because of the drugs they were both taking to suppress any estrogen in their systems.
Bill was surprised and saddened to find that a man who’d owned land near his hunt club had died of breast cancer. He said sadly, “He noticed lumps but he was embarrassed to tell anybody, even his doctor.”
A Changed Man
“Hopefully, my story will touch somebody, and send the message that just because I’m a guy doesn’t mean I ignore things like this,” Bill said. “I sent a message to my whole family telling them what happened and that this is their family history, too, so the next time they go to the doctor, not to neglect checking the cancer history part. I didn’t think I had that in my family history, but I did and knowing about it could make a difference.”
Being aware and willing to take action saved Bill’s life and he has carried that mindset into other aspects of his life. “Going through this illness kind of reinforces being aware of my surroundings in order to avoid not only diseases but accidents,” Bill said. “Anything can happen; you can get killed by a horse because he’s kicking at a fly. When your time’s up, your time’s up. The methodology can be a whole range of things.”
It’s clear that Bill is making an effort to stick around since he’s having too much fun in his life to leave just yet, if he can help it.
About the writer: Doris Degner-Foster rides with Harvard Fox Hounds in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when she’s not interviewing interesting individuals in the horse sport or writing fiction. Soon to be available is a middle-grade mystery about teens who ride and solve mysteries. Check out her blog at https://dmdegner.wordpress.com/