Five years ago, while I lived in Hawaii, a remarkable surgeon removed my left breast, along with the cancerous tumor that was embedded there. Her name was Dr. Mihea Yu, a highly-rated critical care surgery specialist and a professor at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine. I credit her with saving my life.
But the truth is my wife saved my life too, by insisting that I have that "little bump" in my breast looked at. But then, I suppose my primary care physician saved my life by signing me up for a mammogram and ultrasound exam. But wait. How about those technicians who spotted something suspicious and got me in for a needle biopsy? But then again, I must acknowledge Hawaii's Queen Emma and King Kamehameha IV who founded The Queen's Medical Center in 1859; the hospital that facilitated my life-saving surgery.
Hold everything. Surely, I owe my very survival to Dr. Donald Morton and Dr. Alistair Cochran who developed the sentinel node biopsy technique in 1992, undoubtedly one of the most important recent developments in surgical oncology. OK, this is getting crazy; because I'm certain that the evolution of medical technology and the altruistic compulsion of many nameless individuals to be of service to humanity are directly responsible for saving my life too. What's a dude to do?
In a few hours, I will be celebrating the five-year anniversary of my cancer surgery. Today, upon reflecting on my very long gratitude list for all of those folks who saved my life, it's my surgeon who stood out as a beacon of light for me on some rather dark nights. So I wrote her this letter that I've been waiting five years to compose.
Hi Dr. Yu,
This is Khevin Barnes, writing to you from Vail, Arizona where I currently live. You may remember me as your male breast cancer patient five years ago. In fact, it was exactly five years ago tomorrow that you performed the mastectomy surgery on my left breast at Queens Hospital.
I've been looking forward to this moment; this five-year anniversary of my diagnosis and surgery, to share the good news that I am alive, well and filled with gratitude. I'm happy of course that I have been officially declared to have "No Evidence of Disease," but even more than that, today I am grateful to you for my life.
I did not want to miss this opportunity to thank you.
One of the greatest gifts I've received from this cancer experience is the opportunity I've had to become an advocate for male breast cancer. As you well know, it's a rare disease that is often caught at a late stage in men. We are just now beginning to understand that men respond differently than women to the traditional methods and procedures for treating breast cancer. More and more studies are finally being done, though we still have far to go.
You may remember that after giving some very deep thought to my situation, along with the experience of watching my first wife die at the age of 47 from ovarian cancer, I elected to forgo all chemotherapy against the advice of two oncologists. While I don't recommend my approach to others, I was willing to accept the results of my decision, and I greatly appreciated your support of my choice – regardless of how you saw it. I'm pleased of course that things are going well so far.
One of the first things I did after returning to the mainland five years back was to begin writing about my experiences in hopes of helping other men. My interest in finding out more about breast cancer and sharing information with both men and women began within days of my surgery with you. Some amazing changes in me arose while I was under your care in Hawaii and I want you to know that your impact on my life was, and continues to be, a pivotal point in the evolution of my desire to be of service to those men who find themselves in this "male breast cancer club."
And so, Dr. Yu, I dedicate this five-year mark to you. I have often thought of you over these years, remembering how you would say to me, "Get in here young man," (I was 64 back then) each time you laid me down on the table to drain the fluid from my surgery site.
I wish you continued success in your wonderful work. I know that many others have been fortunate to find you on their path to wellness too. If life permits, I hope to drop you a note in another five years.
With my deepest appreciation,
Khevin Barnes. Male Breast Cancer Survivor.
Stage: one. Grade: three. Age: sixty-nine. Gratitude and Blessings: infinite.