By Bob Riter
I first noticed a small lump under my left nipple when I was scratching my chest one summer night in July1996. I wasn’t especially concerned until a few weeks later when I realized there was blood coming out of the nipple. My first reaction was more surprise than worry. I never knew my nipple had any plumbing behind it and always assumed it was more or less ornamental.
After seeing my family doctor, a surgeon performed a biopsy. The report came back, “breast cancer.” I was 40 years old, in good health, had no family history of the disease, but there I was writing “mastectomy” on my calendar for August 30. It all seemed very surreal.
Although breast cancer is rare in men, it’s essentially the same disease as it is in women. One difference is men almost always undergo a mastectomy. Of course, losing a breast does not have the same significance for a man as for a woman. On the flip side, men are more likely to go around shirtless. I’m usually the only single-nippled fellow in the pool.
Chemotherapy was the scariest part of treatment, because I didn’t know what to expect. It was all explained to me, of course, but I didn’t know how my body would react. Actually getting the chemo seemed rather anticlimactic – they put in an IV, dripped in some drugs, put on a band-aid and sent me home. I waited for bad things to happen. Fortunately, my side effects were relatively mild with fatigue being the primary problem. I never threw up once. Ironically, my dog threw up the very first night of my chemo. I would have appreciated her empathy more had she not made a mess of the carpet!
Shortly after being diagnosed, I opened a fortune cookie and read a message that said, “You have yet to live the best years of your life.” I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to find that comforting or worrisome.
I now serve as the Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes in Ithaca, NY. The center serves individuals with all types of cancer who live in and around Ithaca, NY. We offer one-to-one assistance, connecting people to resources and information, and a variety of support groups, helping people find community. We also have a boutique that provides free wigs and head coverings. We collaborate with Cayuga Medical Center, providing volunteers to work with cancer patients and their families. We collaborate with cancer researchers at Cornell University, connecting patients and doctoral students in on-going seminars. As the Executive Director, I do some of everything: I raise funds, I plan programs, I work with clients, and I represent the organization in the community.
Helping others is important to me. I enjoy being a resource for men with breast cancer and that’s why I started the Male Breast Cancer Facebook group. We are a place for men with breast cancer to share information and resources. Other groups tend to focus on awareness – that is, making the public aware that men can and do get breast cancer. That work is very important, but I wanted to begin a forum through which we could share updates on research and programs of specific interest to men with breast cancer. We know that men get breast cancer because we already have it.
Last year my book, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, was published. The book is a compilation of the columns I’ve written about cancer for the Ithaca Journal and nearly all are based on my work with cancer patients. I really hope the book helps people have conversations about cancer. Sometimes we don’t know how to be helpful to a person with cancer, or even to tell our doctors what we really want. I want to give people the words to talk about cancer. My columns are online as well.
People often ask how cancer changed me. I used to focus more on long-range plans. After my diagnosis, I began to focus more on the present and the near-term. I worry less about the future and ask myself if I’m happy and if I’m making a difference in my community.
The bumper sticker on my car sums up my feelings: “I’d rather be here now.”