Men are not supposed to get breast cancer, so the lump under my left nipple went unchallenged for about three months. Not until it had succeeded in pulling in my left nipple did it get a small amount of curiosity.
Having gone to a dermatologist for a number of years to treat several skin cancers, my first stop was to this doctor. Oddly enough, it had been the skin cancers that had shaken my feeling of indestructibility. My dermatologist would not make the call as to the nature of the lump. How lucky we were that he didn't feel the need to maintain his self-esteem with a quick diagnosis.
The next doctor we visited suggested a mammogram, and we accepted the challenge. Not being "richly endowed," there was much pulling, squeezing, and apologizing as the reluctant breast was forced into submission. The result, other than my increased empathy, was inconclusive as to the nature of the lump. We next consulted a local surgeon, whose familiarity with breast cancer was limited to women, but whose enthusiasm to proceed was boundless.
We moved on in search of expertise, still trying to balance the seeming contradiction of being a man and yet possibly developing a female disease. We found ourselves in New York City with a female surgeon who specialized in breast cancer and had significant experience with breast cancer in men. She offered a pre-operation biopsy but suggested that we just might as well go ahead with a surgical procedure to remove the lump and if it turned out to be malignant, perform whatever degree of removal was appropriate. We agreed, encouraging her to leave as much muscle as possible, in order to retain physical mobility. With family wishing me well, with the worst as a possibility but with spirits high, I went into the operating room.
It was May 1988. I awoke one breast light but the heaviness of the future was still to be revealed in an assessment of the lymph nodes. The answer came the next day but not without much anxiety, apprehension and foreboding. How hard we were going to have to fight.T hey were negative! We still had a battle on our hands and that's the battle with self. Contradiction had now been replaced by shock. How could I, a man, have developed a woman's disease and what did the future hold?
I was released from the hospital in about a day and a half. That afternoon my wife, Joanie, stuck her head out the front door and exclaimed, "Mark, what on earth are you doing mowing the lawn?" Hanging drainage bottles and all, I answered, "It needed cutting!" That was my first act of defiance, not to be my last, to breast cancer. I believe that you take your personality with you into the battle against disease. Having been aggressive, determined and realistic before breast cancer, we realized that it would serve us equally well after the revelation. The disease gets no more than it deserves, not an inch.
Who says you lose control over your life after disease? Why, you have lots of decisions to make! For as many doctors as we visited, we got a different set of recommendations. I decided on chemo and radiation. I did not do well on the treatment.It happened! I started in June 1988 and finished in January 1989. What happened in between was sometimes difficult, sometimes frustrating but, most of the time, manageable. And with the advances in approaches and therapies, today it's even more manageable. My second act of defiance was not missing a day of work due to the treatments.My frequent flyer mileage continued to grow.
About a year after the operation, I became the menu selection for what in the past would have been an innocent insect bite. Unemphasized and unrecognized, my left arm, depleted of some 17 lymph nodes, proceeded to turn red and double in size.A week of intravenous controlled the infection but I was left with Lymphedema. To this day, the daily routine of compression sleeve and awareness go on.
Much has been said about the changes that take place in one's life after you have confronted a life-threatening disease. The elevation of only important issues coupled with the diminution of trivia. Reprioritization is a noteworthy objective. Who would have thought, that in the fourth quarter of my life, a disease would give me an opportunity to directly and positively influence the future of my fellow human beings. If I had announced to the world that I had developed prostate or testicular cancer, that information would likely have been greeted with a cumulative yawn. Ah, but a man with a woman's disease, now that's something else! Bah humbug to any thought that this is an assault on my masculinity. This is a platform from which my advocacy on behalf of awareness and a cure can and does reach a wider audience.
Not a day passes that I do not think of breast cancer. And that's by design. With the sponsorship of New Balance Athletic Shoes and the wonderful reception from most (unfortunately not all) of the Race for the Cure® locations, I plan my days, months and years around the opportunity to run in as many races as I can.Who would have ever thought I would have felt so good In the Pink?
Dr. Polly Roberts