By Bob Riter
More Than a Woman's Disease
Men with breast cancer should speak up, too
By Bob Riter
The first indication that something was seriously wrong was in August 1996, when I began bleeding from my left nipple.
At first, I was more surprised than worried. I was 40 years old and healthy, with no family history of breast cancer.
And did I mention that I’m a guy? I visited my family physician, who was appropriately concerned and sent me to a surgeon. Soon, I had the diagnosis of infiltrating ductal carcinoma—stage II breast cancer.
I wrote “mastectomy” on my date book for Aug. 30. I remember staring at what I had just written and thinking, This is very surreal. I knew that men could get breast cancer, but, as something to worry about, it ranked far behind being hit by lightning.
Fortunately, my surgery was uneventful, as were the six months of chemotherapy that followed. Within a few months, the scar had faded beneath the hair on my chest. Today, when I walk around shirtless, no one even notices. I do have only one nipple, but I was never concerned enough to get a new one. (Doctors could have grafted some skin from my groin for that purpose, but the solution seemed much worse than the problem.)
Telling my family and friends bordered on the bizarre because the news was so unexpected. Not only did I have cancer, I had breast cancer. The response from male friends and family members was stunned silence followed by awkward words of support.
My father offered the comforting, “Do you have a will?”
One guy at the gym said, “I had a hernia fixed last year, so I know just what you’re going through.”
Not surprisingly, women generally had a better handle on the situation. I joined a breast cancer support group and was welcomed—quite literally—with open arms.
Since 2000, I’ve been the associate director of the Ithaca Breast Cancer Alliance. Ithaca, N.Y., has to be the only place in the United States where the mayor, the police chief and the prosecuting attorney are all women and the associate director of the local breast cancer support organization is a man.
I now routinely speak with students, health professionals and the public about breast cancer. I find that my being a man helps cut through the breast cancer fatigue that sometimes exists today. When I stand up and say, “I have breast cancer,” the audience listens.
But it still strikes me that every time I speak, someone stops me on the way out and says, “I knew that men sometimes got breast cancer, but you’re the first guy I’ve ever met who actually has it.”
Some men with breast cancer seem embarrassed by having a “woman’s disease” and never discuss it in public. I remind them that a pathologist sees breast cancer under the microscope. Not male breast cancer or female breast cancer. Just breast cancer.
When men with breast cancer ask me how they can contribute, I tell them it’s important to be a face at the table. Nothing has the impact of showing up at a breast cancer event and joining other survivors when we’re asked to stand up or raise our hands if we’ve had breast cancer. People remember.
When I attend a lecture on breast cancer, I almost always hear the presenter say, “This is of concern to women with breast cancer.” Then they notice me in the audience and quickly add, “as well as men with breast cancer.” If it’s a local event, they sometimes say, “And Bob.”
To me, these little addendums are victories for the 2,000 men who are diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. each year. We deserve to be counted too.
Bob Riter is the associate director of the Ithaca Breast Cancer Alliance in Ithaca, N.Y.