Despite an ‘incurable’ cancer diagnosis in April, Garry Breul continues to produce shows benefitting local HIV patients

By : Steve Blanchard
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Tampa Bay – Early on in his career, while working for the Experience Theater Company in Milwaukee, Wis., Garry Breul was faced with the plague that was later termed AIDS. He lost a good friend who was only 18 years old at the time, and Breul’s life path changed forever.

“John, an actor there, got it. He had it and he was the first person I knew who had it,” Breul recalls during an interview in the American Stage lobby. “I saw him get sicker and sicker, break out into lesions and rashes. I remember going to the hospital and sitting by him for what seemed like the longest time. I was there when he passed away.
“I said from there on in, it’s for them.”

And that’s exactly what he has done ever since—raised money for people with AIDS, or PWAs. He says he’s driven by his faith and adds that he’s always been “a gay Christian boy.” But in 2014, Breul, 63, faced a new, deeply personal challenge. In April he was diagnosed with Adenocarcinoma, a type of cancer that attacks mucus-secreting glands throughout the body. Breul’s cancer started in his lung, and eventually made its way to his brain.

After battling what he thought was an ear infection for weeks, Breul visited his doctor. While the doctor asked about his condition, Breul shared that he had noticed trouble with his memory, especially names of people he knew quite well.

“He asked me some simple questions,” Breul recalls. “He asked me where I was from, and I told him Milwaukee. He asked what state that was in and I couldn’t think of it. Then he asked me what 5 plus 5 was. I told him, ‘I don’t know. I know, but I just can’t come up with it.'”

Breul was diagnosed soon after, and was delivered the news while preparing for American Stage’s spring production of The Wiz, held at Demens Landing on St. Petersburg’s waterfront.

“As I was driving to do the second preview of The Wiz, the doctor called me and told me, ‘You don’t have an ear infection, you have cancer,'” Breul says. “‘Drive home now because you could have a seizure.’ I told him, ‘You have the wrong guy, buddy. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke—I can’t have cancer!'”

After follow up tests the next day, Breul returned to Demens Landing for the opening of the show. Thirty minutes before show time, the doctor called again, confirming that the cancer was there, and more aggressive than expected.

“I broke down,” Breul recalls. “I was crying like a baby. Karla Hartley and Todd Olsen came over. I just said, ‘I can’t do this. I’m destroyed. I’m dead.'”

Doctors estimate that Breul has three to five more years on the planet. Since April, Breul’s life has consisted of regular visits to the doctor and he has undergone chemotherapy and radiation treatments. His doctors are confident that the radiation has helped shrink the tumors in his brain. But so far, chemotherapy has yet to have an effect on the cancer in his lung.

Breul has had to quit work and is currently on disability. But that doesn’t mean he’s lost his passion for theater or for people battling HIV and AIDS. He also hasn’t lost his faith. He says he knows he’s on the Earth for a reason and adds that there is a reason for his cancer, even though he has not yet figured out what that reason is.

“After I found out about the cancer, I realized the Prelude to Pride benefit was already set for June, so I went ahead with it,” he says, referring to the production of All About Steve, starring Scott Daniel and Matthew McGee. “I also went ahead with the RENT concert we just had in Sarasota.”

He also presented the World AIDS Day performance of As Is, held at American Stage on Dec. 1.

Even though he didn’t always feel well during 2014, Breul kept focused on the path he set for himself back in Wisconsin when he lost his good friend to AIDS.

“I am able to do this and there are others worse off than me,” Breul says. “There are people with AIDS who can’t do anything. They can’t even get up. I have this cancer thing but I can still do things. I’m also overwhelmed by the support for me. I knew I had friends, but I didn’t know so many people cared.”

There have been multiple fundraising events for Breul and he’s collected several honors this year—including a “Best Theater Humanitarian” award from Creative Loafing and a World AIDS Day recognition from GAIN, a religious organization in Sarasota.

“That is such a motivating force,” Breul says. “If I don’t do these things, who will? I haven’t met anyone yet to succeed me. The right person has to be able to talk to actors and it’s someone who really cares about the people we’re helping here. That has gotten so big in me. I just haven’t met that person yet. When I do, I’ll hand it over. But not before then.”

With 2015 right around the corner, Breul is already focused on what’s next for him—and it involves more productions and benefits for HIV patients.

“I’m working on something for April, I’d like to bring the RENT concert to St. Pete,” he says. “If that doesn’t work, I’ll figure out something. I can’t sit still until June when we do the next Pride event. In fact, we’re working on that this week, figuring out what kind of show we can pull together.”

Retirement isn’t something Breul even wants to consider. In fact, he’s determined to be back working as a paid staffer for theater companies in 2015, once he beats his “incurable” cancer.

“I love what I do and I’m going to try to get well and come back,” he says. “And everyone has said they would bring me back. I have been doing theater my whole life and I just love it so much. It kills me that I can’t do it right now.”

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