By Michael Singer
People know me now as the guy who’s always handing out the little blue and pink pins and blue and pink bracelets.
My journey began back in December 2010 when I was diagnosed with male breast cancer at age 50. I was seeing my GP, Dr. Joseph Bonanno, for an annual fitness evaluation for my job as a Facility Maintenance Manager for the Federal Government. During the exam I mentioned I felt a cyst under my left nipple. The doctor felt it and referred me to a local surgeon for a needle biopsy as this raised a red flag with him. I had been ignoring the cyst, which had been causing me discomfort for several months, but never mentioned it because I just figured it was a fatty cyst similar to one I had removed several years earlier with no complications.
I made the appointment with the surgeon and brought my wife Patty with me because anything having to do with the word needle in it was not going to feel good and she provides me strength. The surgeon’s name was Anibal Puente from the Bronx. Upon entering his exam room I started to feel very apprehensive. The needle biopsy was one such an uncomfortable procedure and I would have appreciated being knocked out. I cursed a lot and sweated through the paper sheet on the exam table. The doctor could not get out enough fluid with the needle biopsy and scheduled me for a surgical biopsy the following day at Westchester Square Hospital in the Bronx.
I remember waking up in the recovery room shortly after the procedure and still being really groggy. The doctor came in and told me he did not like what he saw and then I fell back asleep (with the help of a pain shot from the attending nurse). Later that night I told my wife what the doctor said, but still never thought I would have cancer of any type.
On December 16, I went back to the doctor’s office with my wife to get the results of my biopsy. My doctor was still in surgery, so I met with his associate. He was the same surgeon who removed my cyst eight years earlier. The doctor greeted us, stepped out to grab my chart, and when he came back into the room his demeanor was much different than when he left to get the file. It was at that moment I was informed a 2.2cm tumor was removed and it tested positive for cancer. The diagnosis was Invasive Ductal Carcinoma and Ductal Carcinoma in Situ. I was floored and did not understand what was happening, as I had never heard of men getting breast cancer. My wife was already in tears and I asked her to tell me what the doctor was saying. She looked me in the eyes and said he’s telling you that you have Stage Two breast cancer. Still in shock, the doctor said he would take care of everything and surgery had to be done right away. I was scheduled for surgery five days later.
My wife and I went home and tried to research male breast cancer on the internet. We couldn’t find any comprehensive information other than my breast cancer would be treated like a woman’s breast cancer. I learned I’d be having a mastectomy of my left breast. Many feelings and thoughts ran through my mind that day and the following days while I put my affairs in order. I had just lost my sister to a horrible death from breast cancer after it had metastasized to other organs and thought the worst for myself. My wife provided me with as much love and support as humanly possible and if it wasn’t for her this whole journey would have been unbearable.
I geared up for surgery on December 21 and was in decent spirits hoping I would be knocked out and wake up minus one nipple. It was at this point in the hospital I was informed they were going to do lymphatic mapping first with a series of six injections around my left nipple! What??? Just shoot me now! Six needles! Where are my drugs? This made the nipple biopsy seem like a walk in the park. When I was finally wheeled up to surgery, I met the anesthesiologist and begged him to give me something since my anxiety was over the moon. After the surgeon came to visit me and introduced me to the assisting surgeon he assured me things were going to be fine. The last thing I remember was sliding into position on the operating table. I woke up in recovery bandaged like a mummy and in so much pain. The surgeon came in and told me everything went well. They tested my sentinel node and non-sentinel node and everything was negative for metastasis.
The next day I went home with 23 staples, two drainage bottles hanging from my chest and minus my left breast. All just in time for Christmas and New Year’s. My surgeon felt I would not need to have radiation or chemotherapy, but to confer with Dr. Fuchs my oncologist. Dr. Fuchs and I met shortly after my recovery and he scheduled me for a full body PET scan. Everything came back negative and I did not need chemo or radiation. I also had genetic testing for a BRCA mutation and I was negative.
I’ve been on Tamoxifen now for nearly five years, which is what they prescribe to women. I must say, that Tamoxifen is not a pleasant drug. It has several undesirable side effects, but I want to increase my life expectancy and this is what the medical field has to offer us men right now. I am almost five years cancer free now and continue to go for blood work and mammograms of my remaining breast. In fact, Patty, her mom and I go for our yearly mammograms together then head out to lunch. Oh, but I am not permitted to sit with them in the waiting room. I must sit away from the women.
Since my surgery I began to look for other people like myself. One day I was watching the Katie Couric show. On it was a young man named Bret Miller and the actor Richard Roundtree from the movie Shaft. I immediately said if they can talk about male breast cancer then I can too. I called the Bret Miller 1T Foundation after seeing the information on the show and I spoke with Peggy Miller, Bret’s mother. She was a blessing in disguise as we talked and got to know one another. She immediately invited my to a fundraiser called Tops Off in NYC where other breast cancer survivors, women AND men, were gathering. I was anxious to meet other male breast cancer survivors and boy did I ever. It was an awesome experience and I met so many men in different stages of breast cancer treatment. I also met Peggy in person, Cheri Ambrose and several spouses and partners of survivors. This was the beginning for me to launch into the world of breast cancer advocacy and that’s when I started raising awareness of male breast cancer.
At Tops Off I met Bill Becker who invited me to be part of a movie he and Bob DeVito (another male breast cancer survivor) were making about their male breast cancer journeys called “Times Like These.” Unfortunately in the process of filming the documentary Bill Becker passed away from metastatic breast cancer. Patty and I were just getting to know Bill and his lovely family and were so saddened by his death. That’s when it really hit home how terrible this disease is and how much we needed more awareness of male breast cancer.
Soon after I saw an ad campaign on Facebook for what looked like an important learning opportunity and applied for the Department of Defense Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program. I thought this would be a great way for me to gain knowledge about breast cancer and make me become a better advocate for this very personal cause. This turned out to be a fantastic experience. I met the doctors and scientists who actually participated in breast cancer research and connected, with so many female cancer survivors.
I was paired with a female breast cancer advocate and survivor named Vicky Carr. She was so awesome and knowledgeable about the disease and took me under her wing as a mentor. We have developed a great relationship and share information and stories regularly. This was such a great experience I volunteered a second time and learned even more. I met so many more scientists and doctors who are always willing to share their knowledge. This affords you the opportunity to learn the latest in breast cancer research and have a voice about the research.
Vicky also told me about a program called Project Lead that is sponsored by the National Breast Cancer Coalition. The program picks only 50 advocates each year to attend a one-week training program where doctors, scientists and advocates are brought in to teach the science behind breast cancer from the bottom to the top. I guess it’s just like being in a college biology course. They also teach you about Deadline 2020 which focuses on finding a cure to end breast cancer by 2020. The instructors and advocates, as well as the staff from the NBCC, are super dedicated and made this experience fantastic. As with most training and events, I was the only male breast cancer survivor in attendance among 50 beautiful female breast cancer survivors and thrivers at different stages of their cancer journeys. I made several connections there and gave a male breast cancer talk to many of the ladies who were interested in my story. As a result, two articles were written and published about me by other advocates.
Another woman I’ve met is Lori Berlin. She’s helping build MBCC and producing/directing our “Men Have Breasts Too” series. Lori has been a great fit as she has been affected by this disease, losing a male cousin to triple negative metastatic breast cancer and learning she is BRCA2 positive, making her more in tune to our plight.
I am really proud to have worked with my local politicians John Marano from community Board 10, as well as Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, in getting a proclamation passed in the state of New York proclaiming the third week of October as Male Breast Cancer Awareness week for the first time. The celebration surrounding this event led to TV interviews and newspaper stories which all help raise awareness.
Most recently my wife and I were participants on a Boston radio show hosted by author and three-time male breast cancer survivor Michael Kovarik. The entire discussion was about our journeys dealing with being male breast cancer survivors and Patty had the opportunity to address what it’s like to be the wife of a breast cancer survivor. It was a new experience for us as we were never on the radio before.
Michael, Patty and I have become good friends and recently we were invited to an event called Artists United Against Breast cancer. We represented the Male Breast Cancer Coalition by handing out bracelets, pins and scarfs at a table proudly displaying out MBCC banner. We had the opportunity to share our stories with hundreds of guest while educating everyone about male breast cancer. We’ve even been invited by the group to attend other events to further our goal of raising awareness.
Recently I was invited to a ribbon cutting ceremony for a new community satellite station called Bronx Net where I met several dignitaries, including Bronx Borough President Rubin Diaz Jr. I got to pin all of the VIPs with my male breast cancer awareness pins and they were all interested in hearing my story. The following day I received a call from the American Cancer Society telling me the borough president suggested I be a keynote speaker at his breast cancer kickoff breakfast. This will give me a great platform to talk about Male Breast Cancer Awareness Week October 18-24.
As for the future, I applied and received a scholarship to the Alamo Breast Cancer Symposium in San Antonio and I will be applying to the 2016 Reel Recovery program for male cancer survivors. My ultimate goal is to spread the word that men can get breast cancer too. Men must check their breasts routinely, as early detection can be a key to surviving this horrible disease.
I have been honored to meet many fellow male breast cancer survivors and their families through organizations like the Male Breast Cancer Coalition, Breast Cancer Brothers.org and The Bret Miller 1T Foundation. I have had opportunities to participate in several events to raise awareness and will continue to advocate for awareness. I urge all men to have a conversation with their medical providers to help promote awareness and possibly save someone’s life.
All my friends know I’m a breast cancer survivor and several lovingly call me Uni-Nip. They all have my pins and bracelets too!