March 30th, 2001, became a day that would change my life forever. It was the day I learned I had breast cancer. Just two days earlier I had a biopsy done in the office where I worked as a physician assistant in a general surgery practice. You can imagine my shock if you consider that I had no family history whatsoever. Considering that I’m a male and did breast cancer surgery nearly every day, it’s even more chilling that I nearly dismissed the lump in my left breast as something I shouldn’t be concerned with. In fact, when I initially noticed the lump it was the size of the tip of my little finger. I found it while showering. By the time I actually did anything about it, it was the size of a walnut.
My shock that day quickly subsided and I immediately started the preoperative workup with CT scans and blood work. On April 1st, I underwent a left mastectomy and axillary lymph node resection. Thankfully, there were no positive nodes.
I have always been independent, thinking of myself as being somewhat “tough”. It took my recovery from this surgery to let me allow my friends to help me. I had to let walls fall down and accept the kindness of others. I certainly wasn’t used to being on the receiving end! I learned to ask for help and, in doing this, actually saw friends that seemed happy to provide.
I chose to undergo chemotherapy and radiation despite having negative lymph nodes. It was a personal choice and one I arrived at with the help of my oncologist and surgeon. I’m sure everyone has heard about hair loss, nausea, burns, etc. I had all to some degree. Nonetheless, I finished my last radiation treatment the day before September 11th, 2001.
It’s funny, but of all the struggles I went through, ignorance would be the thing I remember most today…both mine and from others. First, I should have known better than to let a growing lesion go unchecked, despite my gender. Males DO get breast cancer. Maybe I just wanted it to be something else more benign so I could deal with it on my own time. More importantly, the reason why I wanted to share my story of survival, is to help dispel the stigma that it is only a disease that affects women.
Shortly after my last treatments, I felt compelled to walk in one of the local breast cancer awareness walks with a national organization that has done so much for breast cancer research and awareness. After the walk was finished, my friends encouraged me to stop by the survivor tent. I was reluctant but did so anyway. When I told one of the workers that I was a survivor, she put her hands on her hips and proceeded to tell me that I should be ashamed of myself. Didn’t I know that “men don’t get breast cancer”? She was indignant AND a fellow survivor. She looked for an audience and quickly got one. Despite my nearly-hairless body and long incision on my chest as hidden proof, I elected to just walk away, ready to cry, not wanting to be affiliated with other survivors. At my next oncology appointment I discussed those events with my oncologist. He was infuriated and told me he would call the people in charge and try to get those workers to become better educated. He told me that he had only seen two other males with breast cancer in his 30 years of practice. Not only had I become a survivor, but I would likely become a “voice” as well.
Over the years I have found his words to be true. Being a private person, I thought it would be very difficult to speak of my diagnosis with others. Cancer still carries with it a “taboo” that discourages people from discussing it. The topic of male breast cancer never once came up in any conversation I had prior to being diagnosed with it. Now, I am quick to empathize with my patients who have had cancer, letting them know they are not alone in their struggles, making sure they are getting follow up, doing their self exams, and simply just asking how they’re doing. Some have even opened up to me and asked me to encourage their spouses to make that appointment to get a suspicious lesion looked at. Having gone through what many of my patients have gone through has given me a “badge” of trust that I apparently didn’t have before.
I’m one of many. I’m now aware of hundreds of males with breast cancer. Those who have just received the news, and those who have fought a courageous battle they’re likely soon to lose. Despite the pink ribbon that is affiliated with breast cancer, I’m alive to tell you that it DOES affect males as well. It’s just as deadly…more so if ignored and thought of as a cancer that only affects one gender.
My wish is that everyone hears MY voice and, from it, helps spread the word.