Today, George Johnston knows without a doubt that men can get, and beat, breast cancer. That wasn’t always the case.

The longtime church pastor, husband, father and grandfather once thought the disease now tied to countless pale pink ribbons and awareness walks was a problem that plagued only the fairer sex.

He believed that right up to the moment he was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009.

“I really never thought men could get breast cancer,” he said, wearing his own Relay for Life T-shirt inside the tidy Sandlick Road home he shares with his wife and soulmate, Emma.

George revealed his story this week to help others facing an otherwise unbelievable diagnosis and the miraculous journey that left him cancer-free.

That story started sometime in 2009, when Emma began noticing her husband’s body was gradually changing. The right side of his chest started to grow, with no explanation.

“At first, I was picking on him a little bit about it, but it really did start to worry me, too,” she said.

A trip to the Princeton-Mercer County Chamber of Commerce’s Women’s Expo armed her with the knowledge that she knows saved her husband’s life. As she made her way up and down the aisles of vendors and information displays set up for the two-day event hosted each year at the Brushfork Armory, Emma encountered a representative from the American Cancer Society and asked if it was true that men could develop breast cancer.

The ACS representative confirmed Emma’s concerns and gave her a pamphlet on the delicate subject dominated almost completely by women.

Armed with the pamphlet entitled, “Do Men Get Breast Cancer?” Emma headed home in hopes of convincing her husband to go to the doctor. She wasn’t immediately successful.

“I just pitched it over on the coffee table,” George recalled.

Before long, however, Emma seized a chance to intervene. George, who is a diabetic, went to his family doctor for a routine exam, and in the hallway of the doctor’s office Emma asked the physician’s assistant, Amy Alvis, if she thought George should be concerned.

“She said, ‘Well, pull up your shirt and let me check your hairy chest,’” George recalled, laughing over the ordeal that quickly became more complicated.

The physical exam concerned Alvis, and George’s doctor sent him immediately for a mammogram, an experience that the unwilling patient doesn’t recall favorably.

“Now, that almost killed me,” he said.

Again, the mammogram identified a potential mass that could be cancer, and he underwent further testing to define the abnormal cells situated inside his right breast tissue.

After a biopsy performed by Dr. Gene Duremdes, George learned he definitely had cancer, and the news hit him hard.

“I always hated that word — cancer. I always told people at church that whatever killed me, I hoped it I didn’t get cancer,” he said.

Suddenly, he found himself fighting the disease he had always dreaded, but the situation didn’t worry him enough to let it interfere with Christmas celebrations with his large family.

During a trip to Bowman-Gray Medical Center, George asked if he could delay surgery until after the beginning of 2010, so that he would be well enough to celebrate the holiday with his large family. Somewhat reluctantly, doctors agreed, provided that George and Emma made the trip to Winston-Salem, N.C., weekly, where additional scans would show if his cancer was accelerating or spreading to other tissues.

George underwent surgery in early 2010, but he firmly believes God killed the cancer and healed him before he ever entered the operating room.

“It was the Sunday before the surgery, and I was at church, praying in the pulpit,” George said. “Suddenly, a voice spoke to me and said, ‘Now, step down, and be prayed for.’”

So, he did. He left the pastor’s podium and allowed the faithful congregation at Calvary Tabernacle Church in Glenwood to pray for him. George never expected what happened next.

“I felt a heat surge go through my body, and I told them then that I didn’t need to go to a doctor. I believe I was healed right then,” he said. “I believe God healed me.”

At Emma’s urging and a doctor’s advice, George went ahead with the surgery to remove the cancer on Feb. 10, 2010.

Amazingly, his cancer had not spread. Although there were still some questionable cells on the right side of his chest, Emma said they had stayed contained inside a small pocket that made removal fairly simple.

“His doctor said that with his kind of cancer, the cells usually fly throughout the body, but his didn’t. We caught it early, and that made a lot of the difference,” she said.

In fact, doctors were so confident that the surgery removed all the cancerous cells, George was able to forego further chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

Since then, the Johnstons have become committed supporters of the American Cancer Society and the Relay for Life.

“I called them back after everything happened and told them that I knew they must sometimes feel like they weren’t making a difference, but I picked that pamphlet up and probably saved my husband’s life,” she said.

Throughout his fight against cancer, George and Emma said they found hope in their family at home and at church.

“If you’re happy and you believe in Him, the joy of the Lord is your strength,” Emma said. “And, we really appreciated the cards from people in the church and the community. Some people don’t send cards anymore, but they mean a lot when you’re facing something like this.”

Since his surgery, George has battled other illnesses, including a stroke he suffered while performing a funeral April 1, but his cancer has not returned.

George doesn’t think it ever will.

“I told Dr. Shem [at Bowman-Gray] that I wasn’t worried about it. I have a man upstairs looking out for me,” he said.

Still, he returns regularly for a check-up, just to make sure the malignant cells haven’t started to grow again. So far, his scans have all come back normal.

“I’d tell other men that they need to go get checked,” he said, explaining his straightforward advice.

Showing a sheepish grin, George said it sometimes feels a little strange to see his cancer identified with pretty, pink ribbons, but Emma confided that he has his own pink shirt. She tried to get him to wear it for this interview, but he settled on a Relay for Life cancer survivors’ shirt instead.

— Contact Tammie Toler at ttoler@ptonline.net.

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