Breast Cancer and the Battle of the Body Clock

How I’m learning to survive cancer and aging at the same time

As if being diagnosed with breast cancer wasn’t enough trauma in my life, it all came about right around the time I began to notice some significant changes in my body—part of the natural process of growing older.

I was 64 at the time male breast cancer appeared. The chance of a man getting breast cancer goes up with age. Most breast cancers happen to men between ages 60 and 70, making me an ideal candidate for this rare form of cancer.

Coincidentally, the few months preceding my diagnosis was a time when I began struggling with knee issues, the result of nearly 40 years of competitive running. It was then, too, that I noticed that I was suddenly wearing my eye glasses all day long, instead putting them on only when I needed to read some fine print. I discovered lines and creases in my skin that seemed to sprout overnight. Pre-cancer skin issues began to appear, and I visited a dermatologist for the very first time.

I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that old age caught me by surprise! But that’s only because I wasn’t paying attention.

The truth is, of course, that the changes in my body would have been easy to spot (and perhaps accept) if I hadn’t been resistant to them. All of this reminds me of an old birthday card I once received with a picture of a handsome Egyptian prince on the front. The caption read “Congratulations! You’ve reached the Nile age. Halfway between juvenile and senile! ”

Looking back on my adult life, I can still remember the exact moment when I realized I would need eye glasses. I was 38 years old and driving along a rural road in Portland, Oregon. I pulled out the map from the glove compartment of my car in order to confirm my route. As I scrunched up my face and peered at the tiny streets and highways, I felt certain that I had something in my eye, perhaps a little dust or even an eyelash. I couldn’t see the lines. It had never occurred to me that my eyes might be changing, and I can still recall the alarm I felt upon realizing the truth.

It seems to me that we get better at coping with ageing as we actually get older. After all, do we really have any choice? I’m in line to get two brand-new knees in a few months’ time. I could never have imagined this in my running days. The truth is, I couldn’t have imagined it six months ago.

When body parts “go bad,” they often appear to malfunction overnight. This is not unlike the hard drive on my computer malfunctioning recently. I really had no warning, until suddenly all of my files vanished in the blink of a diabolical, data-dumping eye.

I have nothing against ageing, really. In fact, those of us with cancer often gain a new respect for our bodies if we are fortunate enough to halt or even slow down cancer’s advance. The amazing scientific developments we’ve seen that have created new body parts, mended old ones and extended our lives can certainly give us something to celebrate.

So today I vow to accept my diminished eyesight, the age spots on my skin, my brittle hair, the arthritis in my knees and all the rest as a fair and equitable trade for yet another day to enjoy a magnificent sunset here in the beautiful Sonoran desert of Arizona.

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