New business grows from struggle with breast cancer
By Michele J. Kuhn
RED BANK – When it comes to the signature color for breast cancer, Elio Ventrella wishes there was a little bit of blue mixed in with all that pink for men like him.
The 33-year-old Ventrella, the owner of theGLAMbar on Broad Street, is a five-year breast cancer survivor. He was diagnosed May 17, 2007, after feeling strange. “I don’t know how to put it,’’ he said. “I was eating a lot and perspiring … I had swollen lymph nodes.”
When his primary care doctor told him it was an infection, “I said no, something else is wrong.” When the doctor declined to send him on for further tests or examinations, the then-Staten Island resident made an appointment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
Ventrella said his father, grandfather and an aunt all died from cancer. His grandmother is a breast cancer survivor.
“They did a full workup,” he said. And when the results came in, his doctor sat him down. “He started out by calling me Mr. Ventrella when he had been calling me Elio… He told me I had breast cancer.
“They told me they had to treat it aggressively… It was Stage 3 from what they could tell. It was life or death,’’ Ventrella said.
“I thought it was a joke. I was just getting my life back…I had had a bad breakup and I kind of lost myself for a while and I was just getting myself back,” he said when learned of his diagnosis. Ventrella left the doctor’s that day promising to make appointments with specialists but instead ignored the fact he had breast cancer.
For four months, he said, he “put it aside. I didn’t deal with it at all.” He didn’t even tell his family or friends. He admits he was scared and also afraid of how he would look after surgery. He feared being disfigured. “I was very vain…very, very vain, but I also didn’t want to die. Dying is still my biggest fear,” he said.
He finally began looking for an oncologist and a plastic surgeon who specialized in men with breast cancer, a task that proved to be problematic. “There are no plastic surgeons for men with breast cancer… Being a man with breast cancer makes you feel you are alone with no one to help you,” he said.
Less than 1 percent of all breast cancers occur in men and those who do get breast cancer are generally between 60 and 70 years old, according to statistics from the National Institute of Cancer at the National Institutes of Health website.
While researching, Ventrella said he found three doctors – in California, Texas and Florida – who would perform reconstructive surgery on men with breast cancer. He chose the Florida doctor. He had “extremely aggressive” surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami to remove his right breast and then underwent reconstruction. He didn’t expect to have chemotherapy or radiation. But when tests of lymph nodes taken from his armpit and right arm during surgery came back as positive for cancer, he was put on a regimen of chemo and radiation, eight weeks on, four weeks off and then eight weeks on again, he said.
During the off days when he felt well enough, he would go to spas for facials and massages. He met a cadre of about 14 women who befriended him. He would forget about his problems for a while as he listened to them complain about the spa and beauty services they got and how they never really knew what it was going to cost until they were leaving the building. It was those friendships – he still keeps in contact with six or seven of those women – that helped him see a market for theGLAMbar, a blow-dry bar and makeup business which opened in March at 116 Broad St.
Two years after battling the disease alone, Ventrella finally told his family and friends about having breast cancer. Since then they have been with him as he has battled complications, including a stomach infection, procedures to build up his arm and then the rupture of that work that occurred during a work accident. He has had a total of 32 surgeries, the last in 2010, he said.
While recuperating, he came to live in Red Bank where the person he was seeing had a summer home. “I saw Red Bank as a safe haven. No one knew me here and I could be normal.’’
After losing his love for his job in merchandise branding with a major department store, he decided to open a business for women. “I didn’t research it… I did my legal work with LegalZoom (an Internet legal document site) and went to a real estate agent.
“This was the first building I saw. I saw 22 (all over New Jersey) and I came back here,” he said. “I felt at home here.”
Ventrella is a supporter of the Paint the Town Pink campaign. He said he would like to bring some makeup and a few of his “glamologists” to area hospitals and help make breast cancer patients feel better about themselves.
Ventrella expects to grow his business to other areas and is already working on a second version of theGLAMbar.
After coming through his ordeal, he’s cautiously optimistic. “I’m OK.”