In October 2008, after feeling a small mass under my left nipple, I was diagnosed with MALE BREAST CANCER. Unlike a female breast cancer diagnosis, I wasn’t presented with an option to have a “Lumpectomy” and / or subsequent radiation therapy. Because men do not normally possess enough breast tissue to allow for a lumpectomy and completion with clean margins, MASTECTOMY is highly recommended as the primary course of treatment.
Most MEN and for that matter, people in general, don’t understand that men can get breast cancer. (I’ve actually met some physicians that didn’t know this either, but that’s a topic for another day). Let alone have a complete removal of the breast tissue involved with one side of the breast. Yes, men do have breasts!
When discussing the options for treatment with my surgeon, only mastectomy was really offered as a qualified way to insure the best possible outcome in the longer term. What was offered was the option to have Bi-Lateral Mastectomy. Bi-Lateral is removing both the side with the cancerous tumor as well as the other breast. The other side (which was on my right as my tumor was on the left) would be a prophylactic / preventative measure surgery to ward off future cancer potential.
At that time and not really understanding my future risks, I opted for the “single” mastectomy.
No one could honestly prepare me for the surgery. Yes, I received the information from my breast surgeon about the surgery itself, the testing needed prior to the procedure, the potential problems during the process including anesthesia side effects, etc. What wasn’t expected is that they actually do a Surgery, before the Mastectomy, called Sentinel Node Mapping.
About an hour before, they inject a “tracer” dye substance into the affected breast near the tumor. The surgeon identifies which Lymph Node the dye is absorbed by first. This is called the “Sentinel Node”. Once identified, that lymph node is removed and a pathologist examines the node for any signs of cancer. If no cancer is found, they can proceed with removing the affected breast. If cancer IS FOUND in the sentinel node, they continue on to remove most of the lymph nodes from your neck down to your abdomen on the same side, in addition to the breast mastectomy.
With the science portion of this blog out of the way, we can now talk about the emotional and physical detriment incurred.
Yes, I had drains in my former left breast for about 10 days after the surgery. Yes, there was considerable pain from under my armpit across my chest. Yes, after the drains were removed I required aspiration weekly for a couple of more weeks to remove excess fluid and blood build up. But while looking in the mirror every morning, post shower, the “LOPSIDEDNESS” was hard to view.
I have about a 7 inch scar along the base of where my former breast was. I questioned my decision to “not do bi-lateral” for a couple of reasons. 1. It would have at least left me symmetrical where both sides would look similar. 2. Did I open myself up to a future breast cancer, now that I know I am BRCA2 Mutation positive? (I continue to screen twice annually via mammogram and MRI)
For the next few years I was very hesitant to parade around the gym or on the beach with my “One Breast”. It’s not like a woman who never walks around with her top off (sans a topless beach in the Caribbean) and most women opt for “reconstruction surgery” where they actually replace their breasts. Although somewhat available now, male reconstruction surgery in 2008 wasn’t really offered. I am not certain I would have opted for more surgery at that time or even a couple of years later, as I had enough surgeries in my life including prostatectomy 18 months after my breast cancer surgery.
As the years passed, I became more comfortable with my physical disfiguration. Although I am always conscious of my chest appearance, I am no longer embarrassed by it. At times, I will see someone noticing my chest and tend to make it seem like they weren’t looking at me. That’s when I attempt to engage them and teach them about Male Breast Cancer. It’s become my life’s work through the HIS BREAST CANCER AWARENESS FOUNDATION, Inc. that I co-founded with my sister Vicki who is a four-time survivor. Any opportunity to educate may save someone’s life in the future.
I can understand how a younger guy who may be single or dating would feel more emotional stress by this disfiguration. It’s not attractive but there is now reconstruction available. Most insurance companies will cover a woman’s reconstruction surgery but my guess, like with most Male Breast Cancer procedures, they may push back a little for men. We are working very hard to change these perceptions and biases. It’s getting better.
Whatever the new appearance or how badly you may feel about it personally, it’s NOT WORTH DYING OVER!! Make no mistake, the reason the mortality rate for male breast cancer is considerably higher than for female breast cancer, by percentage, is due to ignorance about the disease and men ignoring symptoms. If you’re worried about how you feel or may look, think about those who love you and how they will feel after they watch you suffer and possibly then die!
Understand your genetic risks toward male breast cancer or other genetic cancers. Learn how to perform an easy “self-breast” exam. ( visit www.hisbreastcancer.org for simple directions) Male breast cancer is not a death sentence as long as you find it earlier. Be diligent and continue to live your best life.