SoCal Newsman Fought, And Won, Battle with Breast Cancer

The dean of San Diego television news personalities tells how he overcame a rare and often deadly disease thanks to the loving support of his wife. Sponsored by Post Grape-Nuts.

About this sponsorship: In honor of the 60th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary's historic ascent of Mount Everest, Patch and Grape-Nuts are teaming up to highlight those who inspire people around them to climb their own mountains.

Reported by: Bill Zavestoski

San Diego television viewers have enjoyed the work of KGTV 10News co-anchor Bill Griffith since he arrived at the station in February 1976. After stints in various positions from sports to talk shows, he has been a mainstay on Channel 10's early morning and midday news programs since 1996.

In March 2004, a visit to the doctor's office and a subsequent diagnosis of male breast cancer changed his world permanently. His half-year fight with a disease that is often fatal was followed by viewers and blog followers from the time he first was told of his malady until he was declared cancer-free in late August of that year.

Although it can still be painful for him to relive those scary months, Bill recounts here his triumph over a rare form of cancer in men.

What was your reaction when the doctors diagnosed your disease?

The first thing was 'how in the world could this be true.' I mean, men don't get breast cancer. I'd even been told by the doctor a year earlier that it couldn't be breast cancer. So I was just blown away.

My wife wasn't even with me because we were so certain that it was just going to be a benign lump of some kind. I was shocked. But I'm a man of faith, and one of the first things that Jenny and I did after I came home and told her about it was we prayed. And we said, is there a greater picture here, is there something beyond just dealing with a disease?

I think it turned out that it was, because as I was taking the summer of 2004 off to deal with the chemo and the physical effects of that that kept me off the air, I was able to blog online and share what I was going through -- the victories, the defeats, the highs, the lows. And there were plenty of both.

How did you feel about telling your story to your viewing public?

I later found out that it really helped a lot of people. Not just men, but women too. People who weren't even going through cancer, but people who were just dealing with other kinds of challenges like that.

What decision did you come to regarding surgery?

We first decided to have both sides taken off. I was fortunate that the insurance allowed it, and this is back before it became known, like with Angelina Jolie and people like that, that it was a good thing to do, prophylactically, to get rid of any breast tissue that doesn't have cancer yet so that it doesn't come later.

So I did. That left a deformity though that even for a man is hard to deal with. I mean, I've not gone without a shirt, except in the privacy of my home, ever since. Even members of my family haven't seen me without a shirt since. It's something that just is. You don't want to share those big scars, they're ugly. So that was hard to deal with. 

And you must have had plenty more to cope with following the actual surgery.

The surgery, the drains, all the stuff that went after that was difficult. My wife really worked with me hard to get through that and keep me brave. Then the chemo. Fortunately, I didn't need radiation because I had all the tissue removed. There was nothing left to radiate.

It just was the chemo, to make sure it hadn't seeped into any other part of the body, or if it did, it was killed. That, of course, is the danger with breast cancer. They can treat it in the breast, but once it gets to the other organs and metastasizes, then there's really nothing you can do.

But that chemo. My doctor at the time said, 'Basically what we're trying to do is bring you as close to killing you as we can without killing you.' That's pretty much it, because they kill so many other good cells at the same time. Obviously, your hair cells all go, the lining of your stomach is killed, your white blood cells are killed and the danger of infection goes way up.

I remember the worst part of the treatment was when my white blood count got real low and they gave me a shot to rev up the marrow to produce more white cells. That one shot then cost $3,500. Now I understand it costs almost $20,000. That shot caused all the bones in my body to feel like ants were attacking. It affects different people in different ways. But it was incredibly painful, the fire that that caused when the marrow started working again. But it was necessary to keep me from dying from a simple cold, you know. That would have been the worst irony of all.

Did you ever feel like the battle might be too much?

I remember after the second round of chemo. I went into the first one all gung-ho and ready to go, but it didn't take long to take the fight out, so after the second one, the fight was gone, and I said to Jenny, 'I'm not sure I want to keep this up.' I had two more to go, maybe more, and it's the way she inspired me. My first grandson had been born two weeks before I started chemo, and she brought his picture to my bedside, and she said 'You're not doing it for you, you're doing it for this little baby. He needs a grandpa.'

How do you argue with that? So we went through it and fought it. I'm telling you, if I hadn't had such a wonderful wife with me every step of the way, I don't think I would have done it. I think I'd have just given up and crawled away somewhere.

I think all of us need somebody like that to help us over these challenges and mountains. You need somebody by your side to guide you and inspire you. None of us tackles this kind of thing alone.

And your battle back to health went on for about six months?

My diagnosis was St. Patrick's Day (2004), and they declared me cancer free Aug. 27, which is my wedding anniversary. Of course, we kind of laughed at that, because the oncologist said 'you're never cured of cancer.' You just never really are. But that's the date I consider my freedom from it. 

You know, one of the biggest challenges since then has been talking about it, and I'll tell you why. There's no way of talking about something like that without to some extent reliving it. 

You must have been so thankful to get back to work.

I was scared, because my physical appearance had changed so much. I had aged years in just a few months. My hair not only was gone, but when it did come back it came back a different color and a different texture. It came back white, basically. I felt like I didn't look presentable.

But, boy, everybody welcomed me back, not only here at the station, but the viewers. What an inspiration that was. That was the most reassuring, reaffirming thing that I'd done the right thing. It felt great.

Read more about Bill's involvement with cancer organizations since dealing with his disease in his 10News profile.


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