By Kelvin Woods
What’s the first word that comes to my mind when someone says,
“male breast cancer?” Victory!
I have a lot of life to live and I’m not going to let this take that away. As I told my oncologist, I’m going to remember 2014 as a remarkable year. I could have been stage 4 when I was diagnosed, I could have ignored the lump even longer.
My story starts out the same way so many other male breast cancer stories do. I was taking a shower and noticed a lump just above my right nipple. It didn’t feel natural, I didn’t know what it was. First I thought maybe it was a bug bite, but it didn’t itch. I just thought it would go away. Thinking back now, my nipple was
kind of inverted too, but I didn’t think anything of it until there was a lump. About a month later, my girlfriend noticed the lump too so it was time to see my primary care doctor. After all, this is why I have medical insurance. My doctor thought I could have gynecomastia, which I had never heard of, he gave me Tamoxifen and said not to worry.
I’m a person who does a lot of research. When I read Tamoxifen was given to people with breast cancer, I was worried the doctor was keeping something from me. He assured me he wasn’t and told me to take the medication for three months.
Nothing changed in that time, so my doctor sent me to a surgeon. When the new
doctor had me take my shirt off, he examined me for only a few seconds and said, “We’ve got to get this out and do a biopsy.” Maybe, maybe the entire appointment took five minutes. The doctor looked at me with the strangest expression trying to understand why the primary doc had given me Tamoxifen and didn’t suggest removing the lump right away. They’re the doctors.
A week later, I had a biopsy. About four days later the results were in, and ten days later I had a mastectomy.
When I knew there was a possibility of cancer, I spoke with my family so we’d all be prepared. When I got the call at work from my doctor that I did indeed have breast cancer, I texted my kids with the news. How else do you communicate with this generation?
I’ve been very open and frank with my kids, friends, even strangers. It’s important for people to know it’s possible for men to get breast cancer. We don’t have a big history of breast cancer in my family, I don’t have a BRCA mutation, but I still have breast cancer.
The bottom line is people must be proactive about their health care. Don’t be reactive, especially minorities. We’re just now catching up and having regular health care. The black male population, we’re a tough macho group. We’re not always proactive and often take the “I got this” approach to our health. Don’t wait for anything in your body to go wrong guys.
My breast cancer is stage 2 and hasn’t spread to my lymph nodes. I had eight rounds of chemo and I’ll be on Tamoxifen for 10 years. Luckily I haven’t had any side effects, because I’ve read about what other men go through. The Tamoxifen hasn’t stopped me from doing anything I did before my breast cancer. I could lose a few pounds, but I said that before my cancer too.
I’ve never thought about reconstruction. This is who I am now and I’m not ashamed of how I look. Besides, I don’t really walk around without a shirt anyway here in Oregon. Even if I did, it wouldn’t matter to me. I may get some weird looks, but anything that opens up a conversation about my breast cancer is fine with me.
When not working my full time job as an administrative assistant to the Hospital Operations Financial Officer at Kaiser Permanente Northwest Region, I’m also a DJ. I’ve told my fiancé this DJ thing is a vessel that will take me someplace else. I’ve always felt my music put me on a road to somewhere, but didn’t know where until recently. I have always hoped I could be in a position to make an impact and now being a DJ has given me a platform to talk about male breast cancer. While going through chemo, I didn’t want to bail on my DJ commitments. I was booked at weddings, parties, all sorts of events. My hair had fallen out, my finger nails and toe nails turned black, but none of that stopped me.
In addition to the booked gigs, I reached out to Susan G. Komen to volunteer in my hometown of Portland. I knew about the big Race For The Cure and sent an email offering up my DJ services. I wanted to set up anywhere along the race they’d let me and play music. My gift is my music and I wanted to make people smile on a day when they were running for breast cancer. A gentleman responded to my email and said he would do anything he could to get me in. Of course everything for the event was already in place, but they made room for me at the finish line. No one had ever set up at that spot before to play music. It was amazing. People were singing and dancing at the finish line of Race For The Cure! There was so much positive energy. The radio station DJ’s were loving it too. When the people around me learned I was in the midst of chemo for breast cancer myself, there were announcements over the PA about me. It was very, very emotional for me. I was so grateful to be included in the event and they’ve asked me to come back this year. Oh and the man who contacted me about Race For The Cure, he’s a male breast cancer survivor too!
Some of the people I worked with asked me lots of questions. They just wanted details and were concerned about me. When I told my boss about my diagnosis, he was immediately supportive and told me to take off whatever time I needed. I told my boss I wanted to work, so I got together with our admin team to make plans for me to work from home after my surgery. From May-November I worked from home every workday sending emails, participating in conference calls, all the usual stuff I would do in the office. On chemo days, I would work all morning, head to treatment, then recover and get back to work. It was important for me to maintain a regular lifestyle and work life. No “woe is me.” For my mental health I needed to do everything I did before my diagnosis. With technology the way it is today, it’s easy to work from home. Besides, many of the people I work with I wouldn’t see on a regular basis anyway. Since my immune system was compromised from the chemo, it was better for me to stay at home.
After my diagnosis, I went out and bought some outfits, socks, ribbons all with the pink breast cancer awareness color. For me, I just thought it was a way to raise awareness in people’s subconscious I guess and to get people talking. People were surprised to learn men could get breast cancer too, especially a man they knew. Of course there was the usual look on people’s faces when they hear the word cancer. There was the “you’re doomed and only have a certain amount of time to live” expressions.
As someone who was born and raised in Portland, it’s important for people, especially in my community, to know I have breast cancer. I want to make a positive impact. I remember a woman telling me she’d been trying to get her husband to be proactive about his health, but she couldn’t get through to him. She had seen my story and told her husband about me. He listened to me, to me, and went for a check up.
My attitude is wonderful, as usual. I’ve learned to appreciate life itself, to pay more attention to family and time. I must go out & help others. People must learn they should be proactive not reactive when it comes to their health. I need and want to do as much as I can and feel like this is a calling for me.
Man, now I’m part of the Male Breast Cancer Coalition team. I’ve been reading the other stories and watching the videos. It’s wonderful and helpful to see so many people saying the same thing as me. To be part of this movement is important to me. I always want to help others. We’re all in a big boat together and I’m just another paddle.
We need to unite and be strong. We need to get the message out there that men can get breast cancer too. If it happened to me, it can happen to you. From this point on and for the rest of my life, that’s what I’m going to do.