Coach raises awareness about breast cancer in South Carolina
NEWBERRY, S.C. (AP) — High school coach Travis Gilliam of Newberry says it was by chance his breast cancer was detected.
“I went to a yearly check-up with a pulmonologist for a follow-up on a nodule found on a lung a year prior,” Gilliam explains. “It had not grown and was pretty much gone, but the radiologist who was looking at it found something else. It was by chance that the radiologist said, ‘Well, what is this?’”
The “this” turned out to be a breast lesion. Gilliam received a diagnosis of bilateral breast cancer Dec. 26, 2019.
Gilliam coaches volleyball at Newberry Academy and he’s also an assistant basketball coach at the school.
Gilliam, 47, said he was not expecting to hear he had breast cancer. He said he’s thankful it was determined to be non-invasive.
And, after genetic testing through Greenwood Genetic Center, Gilliam said it has been determined that he does not have genes associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, even though his mother and a cousin both had breast cancer.
“My family and I decided I should go ahead and have a double, bilateral mastectomy,” Gilliam said. “I am completely blessed that I did not require chemo or radiation.”
Gilliam said the mastectomy was performed at Self Regional Medical Center and he had the first part of his reconstructive surgery at Lexington Medical Center Sept. 10.
“I’ve probably got three more surgeries left to complete reconstruction,” Gilliam said, noting he’s also considering possible work by a tattoo artist as part of the process. “There are artists who do 3-D tattooed nipples. Everyone, in all the hospital systems, has been on the same page and it’s really been a comfort to me that they are willing to work together.”
Reconstruction is helping Gilliam to feel more comfortable going to the beach, lake or pool with his family, he said.
Gilliam credits his wife, Karla, with being his “rock” during all of this and his twin teenagers, Cassie and Christian, with being among his biggest cheerleaders, often sporting T-shirts with the slogan “No one fights alone. Team Travis.”
“I think it helps that she has a health care background in respiratory therapy,” Gilliam said of Karla, noting she’s had her own full plate as dean of curriculum and online learning at Piedmont Technical College during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Between his diagnosis and surgery to remove breasts, Gilliam said he was unable to attend many Newberry Academy basketball games last season, but he’s back coaching volleyball now and looking ahead.
“Travis is very upbeat and doesn’t let a lot get him down,” said friend Samantha S. Shelley, who coaches volleyball at Cambridge Academy in Greenwood. “We can call after games and joke about things. He’s always positive. He’s been wearing a tight-fitting compression vest after reconstruction surgery and is still just ready to be out there coaching, calling it his FBI vest. His wife and his assistant coach have been making sure balls don’t hit him when girls are warming up before a game.”
Players routinely ask for updates on how Gilliam is doing, Shelley said.
“Players truly care,” Shelley said. “While we are competitive and we want to win as coaches, we’ve also got each other’s backs.”
Gilliam is also keeping friends and family updated on his cancer journey through a blog on Facebook, Travis’s Journey — Fighting Strong Against Male Breast Cancer.
Shelley said Gilliam’s positivity has helped with his healing process and with bringing awareness to male breast cancer.
“I do have a new and profound respect for women who undergo 3-D mammograms,” Gilliam said. “Wow. That is crazy. I think they pulled everything they could to get the necessary images.”
Gilliam said he has a history of heart issues and pulmonary embolism, which is why he was seeing the pulmonologist.
“I’m a very hands-on person when I’m coaching,” Gilliam said. “I want to show my players what I’m talking about. My volleyball team has been very good during all of this. When they are practicing drills, they will stand like a wall in front of me, so the ball doesn’t hit me.”
Adding another layer of challenges, Gilliam said he learned he tested positive for Covid-19 on Sept. 21.
Gilliam said he’s had overwhelming support from his players, his church, Silverstreet Lutheran, his job, with Senn Freight Lines, his workout buddies at Crossfit Greenwood and from fellow Region I schools of the South Carolina Independent School Association.
“People have prayed, they have brought food and hosted Coach Gilliam nights to provide financial support,” Gilliam said. “It’s been absolutely overwhelming.”
Gilliam said it “took him a while” to acknowledge his breast cancer diagnosis.
“You gotta go through the steps of denial and anger, but I was definitely taken aback,” Gilliam said. “I was in shock. With the support of my wife, Karla, and my twins, Cassie and Christian, it was definitely easier to get though it.”
According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation Inc., less than one percent of all breast cancer cases develop in men. Men are often diagnosed at a later stage of breast cancer than women.
About 1 out of 5 men with breast cancer have a close relative, male or female, with the disease, according to cancer.org.
Gilliam said he’s made it his mission to make men and women aware of breast cancer, including his high school athletes.
“Don’t just assume that it can’t happen to you,” Gilliam said. “Always do self-examinations. It’s tough to even think about, but if mine wasn’t caught, then what? I’m going to keep pushing so that everyone stays aware.”