1. It felt like I had a BB right under my skin.
Yup. My nipple started itching off and on for about a week. It's kind of hard to get a good hard scratch going on your nipple so I tried different angles and one day I hit that bump. I asked my girlfriend to check it and her eyes bugged out, "That's a lump, you need to get checked."
2. She found me a GP, Shauna, who saw me the next day.
Yes, I didn't have one; yes, I should have had one a lot sooner. I told her the reason for the visit and that no one in my extended family (either side) had ever had any type of cancer. She asked which arm I had my covid shot in because it has shown to swell some lymph nodes on that side and caused temporary swelling in the breasts in some patients. My shot was on that side. Anyway, Shauna checked me out as well and confirmed that it was a lump then scheduled my mammogram two days later. She told me it could be any number of factors but it was best to be sure.
3. A man among women...
It's true. I went to the Women's Center for my mammogram. They greeted me as Mr. _____, but among themselves I quickly became The Guy. I got it, I'm an outlier in their world and a mammogram center is basically a safe space for women. They didn't sign up to run into a guy while wearing those hospital gowns. During my time there I was treated professionally by the all female staff but I quickly became a source of stress for them as well.
4. I was stashed and hidden from sight... the old shell game.
Pam was my personal escort for the day. She was tasked with keeping me hidden from the women and boy did she have her work cut out for her. There aren't any Guy areas. The best one was rounding a corner then getting hurriedly stuffed in a laundry closet. I was inside chuckling about the whole thing when I heard someone ask where The Guy was. When Pam told her I was in the laundry room, she started yelling, "You can't just stick him in a closet!". Pam replied, "I can't have him walking all over the place with all these half naked women!" I laughed and told them I was fine and was allowed out when the coast was clear. She felt so bad but I had another funny story to tell.
5. More people asked me about this than my cancer
To be fair, I didn't know how I was going to get a mammogram done either. I'm pretty fit, medium build, and... a man. I'd never seen the machine but have had women describe it to me before. Teri, my tech, told me that I was going to have the same problems that most A cup and nearly A cup women have. She was upset I wasn't told to shave my chest for the test. I found that funny. How many other patients do they tell to shave their chests before their mammogram? She was simply frustrated that someone missed it, but my question got the receptionist off the hook. Anyway, so she positions my arms and she tells me to lean in as much as I can. Five minutes later, I have the machine in a bear hug and trying to pull my chest in between the panels. Teri is running around me pushing and stuffing ANY extra skin she can into it to get a reading. We laughed our asses off at how ridiculous we must have looked.
6. The lump was confirmed, I needed a biopsy. I insisted they do it that same day and the staff made it happen.
There I was, topless. Sheila and Pam pose me into this side/back quasi spoon position with my left arm over my head. It kinda felt like I was there for a really bad photo shoot. It was interesting to watch on the monitor and they kept checking how I'm doing but I don't like to be babied. We ended up joking about needing popcorn and beer while we 'watched TV.' When I left, I thanked them for a fun day, my pink folder, and my pink paperwork. They had already looked everywhere for a plain manila folder without my asking but everything was pink. Oh well, it made it easier to find at home. Again, I appreciated their care and understand the stress of me being there made for everyone else that day.
7. I got the call no one wants to get... cancer.
Grade 1, Stage 1; they were surprised we caught it so early. I insisted on surgery the next day. They countered with meeting my surgeon in two days. I told my boss and later my girlfriend and family about the diagnosis. Now, my girlfriend has had health issues that were much worse than a BB in my nipple and is the strongest woman I know. What does she do? She freaks. My family freaks, my friends freak, my best friend starts feeling sympathy lumps all over his boobs, and now I gotta go on an immediate tour to show people that I'm still me. I'm not going anywhere. Okay, I have cancer but cancer doesn't have me. It's now a task I need to complete ASAP; that's how I'm wired. After that call, I repeated to myself, 'I have breast cancer' at least six times waiting for it to hit me. All I could think was 'well, that's stupid.'
8. My surgeon is one of the best in the city
So, I meet with my surgeon, Jackie, and her assistant, Tami. I told them that I'm impatient and have plans for my life and cancer ain't a part of it. All I want is the date of surgery and ask which option gets rid of it fastest, forever, little downtime, with no chance of recurrence. She replied that would be a complete mastectomy of the left breast. I countered that we could go do it right now for all I cared. Jackie then cautioned me that it would result in a 10 inch scar across my chest, the removal of any lymph nodes associated with the breast and a loss of my nipple, after detailing my other options. My girlfriend asked me if I was good with that decision. I replied I couldn't begin to imagine or understand what anyone else must go through psychologically or emotionally over the loss of a breast but that, as a guy, my breasts were as useless to me as my belly button or appendix. They were dumbfounded by how I saw it.
9. The only man on my care team
I get a surgery date and spend the next day meeting Gene, my oncologist and Rachel, his research assistant. He walks in like he's meeting a celebrity. He's excited because I'm the third man in 20 years for him. He explains that only 4% of all breast cancer patients are male and of that 4%, only 1% of those patients have my type of cancer; papillary breast cancer. Honestly, I didn't know there were different flavors of breast cancer, but okay. It's rare, so I make him promise that if any findings get published and he becomes famous that he has to take me on the book tour. He laughed and agreed it was a deal. He then takes blood to do genetic tests to see if my father may have passed it on to me or if my gene mutated which meant I could have passed it on to my son or grandsons. When I got home, I confirmed to my girlfriend that I truly was 1 in a million; Gene said so. She glared at me like I was an idiot.
10. Genes are weirdly random
Most people think we're 1/2 biological mom and 1/2 biological dad. In reality, we're closer to being different percentages of the four grandparents just like your parents are a blend of their grandparents. That's why, with the exception of identical twins, siblings could share as little as fifty percent of the same DNA. You could have gotten more of Grandpa Smith's and your sibling could have gotten more of Grandma Jones' genes. With one other exception: Any male biological brothers will always have the exact same genes as their father in the Y genome. Why the males? Humans have 23 chromosomes. All 23 of them are made up of an X from mom and an X from dad in a woman's case. In the case of males, 22 are XX. The last one is an X from mom and a Y from dad that is barely attached. The result of this is that 100% of the male genes pass from father to son. Everything that makes a man a man, biologically, has been passed down a chain from grandfather to father to son to grandson and so on.
11. Surgery was a success
Two weeks later, I had my mastectomy during an outpatient procedure. I could lift no more than 5 lbs. for three weeks and took five days off work for recovery. I had no pain after surgery and still have yet to feel any pain from the surgery. Jackie told me it was because she used pain blockers and they severed so many nerves that I have no feeling in the region (an area about the size of a sideways I-pad mini). It could be a year before they start to grow back, if they grow back at all. I had some discomfort from the drainage tube, but didn't need any pain medication. I'd never heard of getting a replacement nipple tattoo but people started asking. I may get a tat, but if I do, it's going to be a big brown button with a needle and thread. Kinda like replacing the missing eye on an old teddy bear.
12. They took the skin, nipple, and 1/2 of the fatty layer we all have under our skin. No muscle.
She told me if they take out all of the fat layer, your skin will die. It's like taking a patch of grass from the yard and placing it on the sidewalk. Didn't know that.
13. I had a small request...honestly, I did ask.
I asked if she could slide in a couple pecs and maybe a fake six pack for my abs, you know, while she was there. Jackie said, "Umm, no."
So then, I asked for a couple of extra scars across my chest so I could tell people I fought off a mountain lion or a bear or something cool like that. Jackie said, "Hell no."
14. My girlfriend posted about my cancer to her online support group.
She was upset that she was met with crickets chirping and almost no support from them. I asked her if she had really expected any. She shook her head and quietly replied, "No."
15. I authorized my tumor to be sent for a national study into breast cancer, specifically male breast cancer.
My oncologist said that, male or female, most people refuse to let their tumors go to research in an effort to understand it or find a cure. I know it's your body and your choice, but really... what are you going to do with it?
16. My girlfriend was both relieved and disappointed.
She was relieved that I had no pain and she only had to help me wrap my chest during aftercare. We'd tape the gauze pads over the incision then I'd raise my arms and spin in a circle while she held the Ace bandage. She was disappointed that she couldn't baby me like she wanted. Oh my god, does she like to nurture... and I'm not one of those man flu guys.
17. Seriously, a week after surgery, I was doing so well that she both worried about me and forgot about it
She walked in the front door and yelled at me for carrying a bowl of cereal. I told her to relax because it weighed less than 5 lbs. so she apologized for mothering me. Then she tossed her keys on the counter and asked me to bring in the groceries from the car. Oh yeah, she'll never live that one down.
18. Mine was not a journey... more like a 3 week business trip.
Like I said, I didn't have a GP and always viewed my good health as a given. So, I made up for it by catching up in those three weeks. Let's see, two complete physicals (one by Shauna and one pre surgery), stress test, COVID test, cardiovascular screening, oncology screening, and a minimum of four blood screens (genetic and regular). Oh yeah, got my colonoscopy done, too. My boss and company were flexible with my schedule and I didn't have to miss any work.
19. Laughter was the best medicine for me.
I chose to laugh at my cancer. Joking with my care team and having funny anecdotes to share with family and friends in my daily updates kept me and everyone around me upbeat, laughing, and positive. Cancer is serious and your choices are hard... but they're yours. Rock them however you decide.