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With Breast Cancer, It's Always "A Million Little Things"

Television shows often portray breast cancer in unrealistic ways. As a survivor, it's my job to pay attention to the details and check them for accuracy.
PUBLISHED February 27, 2019
Bonnie Annis is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2014 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. She is an avid photographer, freelance writer/blogger, wife, mother and grandmother.

There’s a late-night television series I enjoy watching called A Million Little Things. The show deals with various friendships and the challenges they face. I’m not usually one to get caught up in TV dramas but this one caught my eye for a couple of different reasons.

In one touching episode, the show involves a scene taking place in a large meeting room. Women are sitting in metal folding chairs arranged in a large circle.  After the women talk for a few minutes, it’s evident this is a support group meeting and all of the women are breast cancer survivors. The camera pans in and the group facilitator asks a new member if she’d like to introduce herself. As this woman begins to speak, she suddenly becomes flustered. The camera shifts and we see a male figure in the circle. As the camera zooms in on his face, the newcomer questions his presence. In the next moment, the male actor speaks up boldly and says, “Men get breast cancer, too. It’s a real thing.” Like most of the viewing audience, I gasp. I wasn’t expecting that.

For the past few months as I’ve watched this controversial show, I’ve found myself particularly interested in their coverage of breast cancer. Not only does the show include a woman’s breast cancer story, they also include a man’s. Instead of focusing mainly on the woman’s plight and how men react to women with cancer, the writers developed a very tender story about the male character’s breast cancer diagnosis and how he struggles.

During the middle of a basketball game with his friends, Gary (the male character with breast cancer) divulges his recent diagnosis to his male counterparts. At first, none of the men believe Gary as he shares his painful news of having breast cancer. They seem to think he’s kidding, but as the actor’s body language speaks seriousness, his friends stop in disbelief. After processing the truth of the situation, they begin to console him.

At that very point in the television show, I realized how little I know and understand about male breast cancer. This frightened me for a couple of different reasons. One of the reasons this lack of knowledge bothered me is because, as a breast cancer survivor, I should be aware of all aspects of breast cancer. But the reason I should hone up on my understanding of male breast cancer is because it could very well affect my husband or my son one day.

Odds are, my husband would be more apt to receive a breast cancer diagnosis than my son because of the risk factors involved. My husband has a genetic risk because his mother had breast cancer, but he’s also at risk due to his age, his exposure to estrogen and being slightly overweight. My son is at risk because of my breast cancer diagnosis but he doesn’t meet any of the other medical risk factors. According to the American Cancer Society, there will be 2,670 new documented cases of male breast cancer this year and an estimated 500 deaths.

When I watch a show like this, even though I know it’s written with dramatic effect in mind, I scrutinize the show for accuracy. In this case, since I don’t have the facts on male breast cancer, I can’t police what’s being shown. I can’t make sure my friends and family understand what is and isn’t true.

So far, the show has done a good job of accurately portraying the feelings and attitudes of the characters toward cancer. They’ve also done a fairly good job of giving viewers a glimpse into the world of breast cancer but there’s so much more to understanding it. Just like the title of the show conveys, the same applies to the world of breast cancer— it’s always “A Million Little Things.”

CURE has several male cancer survivors who share their stories on a regular basis, but of those, there are only a handful of male voices who are also breast cancer survivors. 

Since watching this television series, I’ve made a point of reading more posts written by male CURE bloggers like Khevin Barnes. It is important to me to understand not only the perspective of a male diagnosed with breast cancer, but to also understand how very similar our lives are to one another. 

I imagine it’s extremely difficult for a man to consider examining his own breasts. And for the brave soul who does perform a breast self-exam and finds something suspicious, I imagine it’s even more challenging to see a doctor about it.

We need to do whatever necessary to change the way the world sees breast cancer. It isn’t only a woman’s disease. Anyone with breasts is at risk. No one should ever be embarrassed or ashamed to do whatever is necessary to protect their health.

If a television show can bring about awareness to both male and female breast cancer, I’m all for it.

As a survivor of breast cancer, my hope is that I can help others avoid some of the pain and unnecessary trauma associated with a real-life diagnosis. And while television shows do a good job giving lifelike scenarios, it’s always better to talk with someone who’s experienced cancer without a prepared script in hand.  

To learn more about male breast cancer, please visit this cancer.org site.

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