I am 65, and I am a male breast cancer survivor. My journey started last year with a visit to my dermatologist doing his normal examination for skin cancers. He noticed a lump under my left nipple, and that the nipple was inverted. I was told to have my primary care physician look at it.
I had my annual physical scheduled in March 2014, and my primary care physician sent me to a breast surgeon at the local hospital. The next hour at the hospital, I had every breast test that my wife and most other women schedule a year in advance: a mammogram, an ultrasound, and a needle biopsy that hurt like hell.
The following week, I had a PET scan, a chest x-ray, an EKG, and a surgical biopsy. I had surgery for a chemotherapy port to be implanted. And then I had my first appointment with my oncologist. I had male breast cancer!
At this point, I knew I was going to have at least 6 chemo treatments, and after that a full mastectomy on my left breast. Then there was the appointment with the acute care nurse practitioner at the oncologist’s office. She explained the side effects of each chemo that would be used, the last one being what patients renamed the “red devil.”
When I walked out of that office, my thoughts were, “if the cancer didn’t kill me, the chemo would!”
In the middle of April, I had my first treatment. I walked into the infusion center the first time, and of course everyone looked at me. I was the newbie, but we were all there for the same reason: to fight cancer. I sat down in a very nice, comfortable recliner with the IV stand next to it. My port was accessed, and the drips started. The nurse told me it would continue for 4 hours.
Then, one of the nurses put on what I call a “hazmat suit,” and brought that first bag of chemo, “my cocktail.” I thought they were trying to kill me. I understand that any chemo spilled on the skin could cause damage to their tissue, but it was going into my blood vessels. This was all explained to me before, so I knew the chemo was going to attack the cancer cells, but this was scary. I got pointers from other patients on how to handle the nausea and other side effects. After all, we are all in this together.
The next day, I got a shot to stimulate the white blood cell production in my bones. I took Claritin to relieve the pain in my bones. It worked well, even though it’s not FDA-approved for bone pain. The pain was like “lighting strikes”; it would hit all over, never in the same place. I got this shot the day after every chemo treatment. The advice from other patients with cancer was indeed helpful. I left that first chemo treatment not knowing what to expect—nausea, hair loss, weakness, and all the other side effects.
I told myself that I wasn’t going to change anything in my life. If I woke in the morning and didn’t feel like taking my 2-mile walk, I would force myself to walk, even if it took me longer than usual. I had just started to fence my 7-acre property. My fence project was going to be my cancer therapy. If I was too weak to work on it, I would force myself to do it.
I wasn’t going to let cancer dictate my life. I wanted to live. I was going to beat it. I was going to win!
On days 4 and 5 of chemo, I slept almost around the clock. This happened after each treatment. The first week, my stool was like marbles. The second week, I had diarrhea. The third week, I was back to normal. Then after another treatment, I did it all over again; the same thing, all 6 treatments. It wasn’t easy.
On day 14, I was taking a shower and my hair was everywhere, but not attached to my head. Then it was my beard, which I’ve had since 1976; my wife and kids have never seen me without it. When all was done, my hair was gone, everywhere.
I never did have any nausea. I took the 6-hour pills the first 2 days, and then the 12-hour pills the next 2 days, which was a suggestion from another patient, and it worked. My fingernails went numb after the fourth treatment. If you have ever hit your fingernail with a hammer, that is how it feels all the time, and it made it hard to pick up anything.
My taste buds were on strike, but not all the time. Salt and pepper didn’t work, but other spices did. I would eat a grilled cheese sandwich and could taste the cheese and the mayo, but not the bread. The same thing happened with pizza: I could taste everything but the crust. I always had a bad taste in my mouth. I had to have really bad breath, “chemo breath,” but no one ever told me I did. My skin got dry, really dry. I could have taken a bath in skin lotion and I would have soaked it all up.
Then there were the mind side effects, the “chemo demon.” I had to watch what came out of my mouth at times. Things that I would never have said just flowed out of my mouth. I learned how to think about things before I said them. I had mood swings all the time. I tried to hide them the best I could.
Bloating: I felt like an overfilled water balloon. I thought I would never get back to normal.
Then there is what I thought was the worst side effect, the loss of my identity! When my hair and beard just suddenly left me, I couldn’t look in the mirror. Every time I looked, there was a guy I didn’t recognize. My wife had always told me that her brother was bald, but this was different: today you have hair, tomorrow you don’t. I can’t imagine what a woman with long hair would feel.
Through all 6 treatments, I didn’t let cancer or chemo dictate my life. I took a vacation to Florida 3 days after my third chemo treatment. I was tired but the vacation with my family was great therapy.
And the fence? It’s a wood agricultural fence with 3 boards at the front of the property and only a top board on the sides and back of the property. I’m at 990 feet now, which is a lot of hard work in the nice, warm east Tennessee sun.
I walked 2 miles at least 5 days a week, and my mile times stayed at the 15-minute mark. Some days I was slower, and some days I did really well. I did a 5K walk in 45:02 minutes. I gave up the weights while I was getting chemo, but the fence took the place of the weights. I firmly believe that exercise works well with the chemo, and it helped me stay positive.
On July 27, I had chemo number 6. I was done! My oncologist told me that the lump under my left nipple was gone, but I still needed a mastectomy, and the surgeon wouldn’t even find a trace of the tumor. So, it was off to the surgeon for a mastectomy. She took all the left breast tissue, including the nipple, and 1 lymph node and the surrounding tissue. I went home with a 6.5-inch incision across my left breast and a 3-inch incision under my left arm.
I waited for my 2-week follow-up and the pathology results. My surgeon read those negative reports to me, and I don’t think I said a thing. I AM CANCER FREE. I AM A SURVIVOR! She removed one of the drain bags that my wife had to empty twice a day. I was still speechless as we left her office. This is a feeling that you just can’t explain unless you have been there. I walked out of the hospital and started to send my sister, who is one of my biggest supporters, the news and I just started crying. I won.
I had my last surgery for the chemotherapy infusion port, which was a lump on my chest for 6 months. Well, it’s gone. I thought I would be glad to see it gone, but it was my lifeline for the chemo treatments. It was a major part of becoming a survivor, and I can’t imagine having to go through all those treatments and blood tests without it.
I know that my battle will never be over. Cancer will always be on my mind. But for now, maybe I can help bring male breast cancer awareness to men who thought it was only a women’s disease.
There are several things that men can look for in their self-examination, which can all be found at www.komen.org. The most visible sign is a nipple that has inverted, or turned inward, like what I experienced.