When most people hear the term breast cancer, they probably don’t immediately think of men. Until recently, that included Kansas City resident Bret Miller, 32, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 when he was just 24 years old.
When he was a teenager, Bret found a lump in his breast. But doctors told him it was likely the result of calcium buildup. They had reason to be dismissive: guys account for less than one percent of breast cancer cases, and it is especially rare among young men like Bret. When he started discharging fluid from his nipple, however, Bret went back to the doctor, where he received his diagnosis.
After learning most guys don’t openly talk about breast cancer due to embarrassment and the stigma of having a “woman’s disease,” Bret founded the Male Breast Cancer Coalition after his surgery in May 2010. The nonprofit raises awareness about male breast cancer and provides support to guys who have been diagnosed.
This is Bret’s story.
I was 17 when I first found the lump. I remember just sitting there watching TV, and I scratched my chest and felt a lump. I was heading into my senior year of high school. I had to get a physical for fall sports, and the doctor at the time said that it was a calcium build-up. Being 17, I’m definitely not thinking that it’s breast cancer.
At the end of my senior year, I was getting my shots for college and mentioned it this time to a different doctor. It was weird that he said almost the exact same thing. “Calcium build-up. Just keep an eye on it.”
The entire time I was in college, I didn’t have health insurance, so I wasn’t going to get routine physicals. But for about a year and a half, if I squeezed the lump area I had a discharge out of my nipple. I was under the impression that it was the calcium buildup dissipating. I didn’t feel sick. I didn’t have anything to make me feel like I had cancer.
After I graduated college, I got a job, so I had insurance. My dad said I should probably just go get a physical, so I did. The doctor was almost out the door before I told him, “Hey, I’ve had this lump for seven years now. What do you think it is?” He felt it and immediately was like, “You know, let’s set you up to get an ultrasound.”
So I had to go get an ultrasound. I walk into the women’s clinic and of course I’m the only male walking into that clinic for the day, minus the other males waiting for their significant other or mom or sister.
I’m sitting there, and I have to fill out the forms. The questions start with name, address, insurance, and then it asks, “When’s your menstrual cycle? Are you pregnant?” Well, this is awkward, because I can’t answer any of those questions.
They finally take me back, and of course I have to put on a pink gown—there’s no neutral colors because it’s a woman’s clinic. The nurse did the ultrasound. This doctor comes in and does a triple take between the monitor and me.
She didn’t say anything other than I should do a mammogram, “Is that physically possible?,” I asked. It is. So I had to walk down the hallway and get a mammogram, which is not fun. They pretty much grab the nipple, pec, and breast tissue area, and pull. Then they bring down the top, clamp it in and press down to take the image.
The doctor said I should do a mammogram. “Is that physically possible?,” I asked.
Those went back to my doctor, who set me up with a general surgeon. He said that since I had the lump for so long, we should take it out. The entire time, nobody said the word “cancer” of any sort, and so the surgeon is saying they’re just going to remove the lump. It was really minor surgery. I was in and out and back at work the next day.
That’s when the doctor called me. He just straight-up told me that they sent the lump off to pathology, and that the preliminary reports are saying it’s breast cancer. And that was that. And I’m in the car and just kinda wondering, “Is this real? Am I getting punked?”
Immediately I think, “Well the lump’s gone, so the cancer’s gone. I’m good, so we’re just gonna see what the next process is.”
But the surgeon immediately says that they’re doing a double mastectomy. There’s no two ways about it. This was the process for breast cancer patients in 2010. We asked, “Well how many males have you performed this surgery on?”And he was like, “You’d be the first one.” That took me aback immediately.
We met with a geneticist who put in for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutation tests to see if I have that mutation, and I don’t. [Editor’s note: Normal BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes keep cells healthy. Damage to these raise the risk of certain cancers, including breast cancer.] We met with a new surgeon, who was phenomenal. He had actually performed 12 surgeries on males before, so I would have been his 13th. He said that pretty much every single male that he’d performed the surgery on had taken time off work, healed up, and went back to work like nothing ever happened. The embarrassing part eventually passed. I came to terms with it.
You need to be aware of your body at all time. You’re your own best advocate.
He said, “I can try to reach out to one of them if you have any questions, but I don’t know that they’ll be willing to talk.” But he goes, “If you’re willing to share your story I believe that you can help hundreds of men.”
The morning of the surgery, the surgeon pulled my mom aside and said to prepare for the worst. “Based on the time that he’s had this lump, there’s a possibility that the cancer could be everywhere. It could have metastasized,” he said. I didn’t know that until about a day later. I was shocked to hear those words. Luckily, they did a sentinel node biopsy test during the surgery to see if it had spread throughout any lymph nodes, and luckily it had not. I got extremely lucky. It was barely classified as stage one. They just took the nipple, and a one-inch margin around the nipple that included breast tissue and lymph nodes.
It’s definitely embarrassing to be male and hear you have breast cancer. There’s no other way around it, really. It feels emasculating. But you need to be aware of your body at all time. You’re your own best advocate. If you feel a lump of any sort, no matter where it is, breast, testicular, just get to a doctor and get it checked out.
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