In his 21-year (and counting) practice in Wilmington, Charles Kays has helped as many as 4,000 women to recover from breast cancer. That has made him a hero to his patients, who cite the surgical skills and the empathy he brings to reconstructive breast surgery.
“I remember being so scared – 34 years old, with children 1 and 3 years old – when I went to him after my breast cancer diagnosis,” former patient Connie Hill recalled. “He told me, ‘I will make you beautiful again.’ I felt comfortable, at ease with him, and knew he wanted to put me back together again.”
Ginger Lee met Kays in 2014 when she went with her sister, who had gotten a breast cancer diagnosis, to see the surgeon. Soon after, Lee learned she herself had stage 4 breast cancer and also became Kays’ patient.
“I tell you, he is just like family,” Lee said. “He is so loving, and he always responded [to our phone calls] in a timely manner.”
Kays counts himself fortunate to have found a professional calling that gives him great satisfaction and that helps women suffering from a disease as threatening to their emotional well-being as to their physical well-being.
He decided on this focus area when he was doing his plastic surgery residency at Georgetown University.
“As I was exposed to breast cancer surgery and reconstruction, it seemed to strike with me in terms of this is what I was meant to do,” Kays said. “Patients came to us because they had bad news, a bad diagnosis. We were there to help them with this, so they would feel whole again. It really struck a chord with me, and I realized this was what I wanted to do.”
As Kays completed his residency in 1996, he learned of an opportunity to return to Wilmington, where he had done a general surgical residency at New Hanover Regional Medical Center.
A board-certified specialist with Wilmington Plastic Surgery, Kays said he is happy to have helped bring reconstructive breast surgery to eastern North Carolina.
People are familiar with mastectomy surgery, but there isn’t as much public awareness about reconstructive surgery, Kays said.
“Over the past 21 years, I have been taking care of these women who get diagnosed with breast cancer. They are almost like my family,” he said. “I can’t make them happy and whole again without putting some of myself into it, being part of the cure.
It’s a very emotional time for me as well as for the woman I am taking care of.”
In the course of his practice, Kays has also been part of an advance in the reconstruction technique that combines mastectomy and breast reconstruction, reducing the length of recovery and the associated pain.
Lia Davis, a mother-baby nurse at New Hanover Regional, was one of the first patients on whom Kays used the new technique. That was in February.
“I was 34 years old with a 14-month-old daughter and had just tested BRCA positive,” Davis said. “Because I had a 50 percent chance of getting breast cancer, I had to undergo a double mastectomy and was struggling a lot with my identity, losing a part of who I had been. Dr. Kays really prioritized getting back the things that defined me: taking care of my daughter, working as a nurse.”
Davis was back to work caring for patients in three weeks.
“It’s unheard of,” she said of the short recovery time. “I completely affirm that this is something that Dr. Kays is called to do. It’s his way of serving his community.”
Kays was selected to serve as an adviser for the National Council of Leaders in Breast Aesthetics. The American Cancer Society presented him with its Silent Angel award. And in 2014 Hope Abounds, which helps local women, children and teens with cancer, gave Kays one of its inaugural Champion of Hope awards.
Kays said talking with women who have been through breast cancer treatment has changed the way he approaches it.
“Breasts mean something to everybody. Losing a breast is like losing a part of your identity – maybe part of your sexual identity,” he said. “We can reconstruct anybody, although some reconstructions are more complex than others.”
Kays’ work has led to more than just patients’ physical reconstruction. It also has spurred two organizations that help area women after their diagnosis and treatment.
One is Empowerment in Pink (EIP), a nonprofit started by Cynthia Simpson, a patient of Kays in 2001. The financial and emotional support she received led her to found EIP, which helps cancer patients and their families in the community.
The second is Lump to Laughter, co-founded by Hill. It provides many types of support to patients, from information and moral support to financial and logistical help.
When Lump to Laughter was getting started, Kays was its first big donor.
“He’s such a giving person,” Hill said. “He wrote me a check out of his personal account. That gave us a start, and [since 2006] we’ve helped hundreds of women.”