By TIM BULLARD
A North Myrtle Beach doctor who has devoted over five decades of research to a cure for cancer has recently received a prestigious honor from an international Catholic organization.
Born in Saranac Lake, N.Y., the son of Henry P. Leis Sr. and Mary Disco Leis, Dr. Henry Patrick Leis, 83, has devoted much of his life to fighting the ills of breast diseases. After receiving his medical degree from New York Medical College in 1941, Leis continued his post-graduate training at Flower & Fifth Avenue Hospitals, where he started his internship in Surgical Residency and fellowship in Breast Surgery. Following his fellowship, Leis was appointed an instructor in surgery at New York Medical College, where he became a founding member of the Institute of Diseases at the college. After making his mark as attending surgeon and chief of breast surgery at the Cabrini Hospital Medical Center, he brought his skills to South Carolina.
Appointed clinical professor of surgery at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, he was commissioned to start a breast service. He remained at USC until 1989, but continued his crusade in South Carolina as a member of the honorary surgical staff as a consultant in breast surgery at Grand Strand Regional Medical Center in Myrtle Beach, and as a consultant in breast surgery at the Dorn V.A. Hospital in Columbia.
Grand Strand Medical Center is in the process of planning a new breast center. “It will be one of the most magnificent things in the Carolinas,” said Leis. “The center has one of the first four-year approved cancer programs in the area.”
Leis considers his greatest contribution to breast cancer to be in the ’50s, when he and a team of doctors studied X-rays and biopsies, learning about microcalcifications and how they could be detected early. At the time many doctors didn’t believe in the benefits of mammography, Leis and his team tested the results of regular mammography on patients. This lead to the encouraging formation of regular mammography’s to detect breast cancer. The team also developed a method to take a biopsy sample without deforming the breast, as earlier procedures did. Leis made further contributions in the preservation of chest muscles, by taking infected glands out underneath, leaving the muscle intact.
“Early diagnosis has made a tremendous difference in mortality rates,” said Leis. “This is the first time in 75 years that we’ve seen a drop in mortality rates in breast cancer. Chemotherapy has added to this decline.”
Leis found that when public figures, such as Mrs. Nelson Rockefeller and Mrs. Harry Truman, announced that they had breast cancer, he would get more patients, furthering positive public education. “When I first started out, cancer was a very dirty word. It was something that you didn’t mention. If your family ever had cancer, you hid it down under the table. It was like you died of syphilis or something. Nowadays cancer is the biggest thing on the pike.”
A new paper Leis is working on emphasizes environmental factors that contain cancer-causing agents. “We are drowning in a sea of carcinogens in this country. The air we breath, the water we drink, the food we eat, the places we work. There are 66 known carcinogens, and there are 260 probable carcinogens, and that’s only a handful of the ones we’ve tested. The big factor is our polluted environment. Most of the foods we get have pesticides, preservatives and everything else under the sun in them.” Leis explained how carcinogens can build up throughout a lifetime, carrying with them more damaged cells, leading to cancer.
Leis’ wife died just over three years ago on their 50th wedding anniversary. He has found solace at his home in North Myrtle Beach where he is a parishioner at Our Lady Star of the Sea Church. Settled now, Leis has traveled the world and collected artifacts from people he has met along the way.
In his home you’ll find a relic of Saint Agatha, patron saint of diseases of the breast, who was defaced by the Roman governor in the third century, but was later visited by an angel who restored her beauty. A rosary, which was carved and given to him by a nun in Africa, hangs on his wall. He also has paintings of the Toledo Cathedral in Spain and an inspiring mountainside in Peru.
Leis, who has received numerous honors, including 25 honorary awards, was presented with the Golden Ambroginio Award in 1988 for breast cancer field contributions and was named one of the 24 best breast cancer surgeons in America based on interviews with more than 350 department chairmen in major hospitals and comprehensive cancer centers nationwide. In addition, he has written eight textbooks and more than 300 articles for medical journals.
In 1996, he received the Silver Palm of Jerusalem in Florida for his 25 years of service to the Apostolate of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, for his Christian life and for 55 years of service as a doctor. It is one of the oldest orders of chivalry, founded in 1099 after the First Crusade, during which Christian Knights captured Jerusalem and freed the Holy Land from Moslem domination.
In South Carolina, Leis is a liaison physician for the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer, a member of the Women’s Cancer Task Force (Breast Cancer and Steering Committee), a member of the Women’s Cancer Coalition and a member of the Best Chance Network.
Leis was recently honored in New Orleans with a Diploma of Merit from Cardinal Carlo Furno, Grand Master of the Equistriam Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, for his contributions to the order and for more than 50 years of service in breast cancer research.
In summing up his career as a doctor, Leis said, “I just like to help people.”