There’s No Box for That

CURE, Winter 2011, Volume 10, Issue 4

Family’s perspective changes when father gets breast cancer.

My parents visited for the holidays, arriving a few weeks after I had my first mammogram at 41. It later turned out that I was fine. Instead, it was Dad who told me he had a lump in his breast. I thought it was weird, but it could be anything. Men don’t get breast cancer, or so I thought.

He didn’t have the results of the biopsy yet, so I reminded myself that lots of people find lumps. But then, I faced the facts: Dad’s brother did have a colon tumor removed after his first colonoscopy. He didn’t need chemo or any other therapy. Just a bump in the road. Considering that, I was sure that Dad’s lump wasn’t cancer.

But I began to notice a pall hanging over my parents’ usually chipper demeanors during their visit. I finally asked that someone address the elephant in the room.

“We already know it’s a mass, not just a cyst,” Mom said. “The sonogram results were immediate.”

“Well, there’s no point worrying about it until we know,” I said.

After taking them to the airport, I went home to crazily Google male breast cancer. Never, I repeat, never use the Internet during a health scare. Within five minutes, my stomach was in knots. Dad’s lump was under his nipple, where most male breast cancer starts. It’s most commonly detected in men between ages 60 and 70. Dad was 69. Strangely, it may be more common among Ashkenazi Jews. My grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Russia. This was not looking good. Then I read the clincher: “Only 1 percent of lumps found to be masses in men’s breasts are benign.”

That wasn’t the worst news. I also learned that about 90 percent of male breast tumors are already invasive due to late detection. I was totally freaked. I prayed at the top of a mountain, in a yoga class, before bed, while driving—anywhere I could—that at least his cancer had not spread.

I prayed at the top of a mountain, in a yoga class, before bed, while driving—anywhere I could—that at least his cancer had not spread.

Then, our wait was over. The marble-sized lump under his nipple was a localized tumor with no signs of having spread! Mom said she never thought learning you had cancer would feel like winning the lottery. Dad was scheduled for a mastectomy.

Then another call. They got the biopsy wrong. Dad did have an invasive cancer. It had spread beyond the nipple into the breast tissue. They think they caught it early but wouldn’t know if it’s in his lymph nodes until the surgery the next week.

Waiting for the results, we endured another week in purgatory. I went to very dark places. However, all his tests came back negative. Later, I called to see how he was feeling, and I could hear him playing some Scott Joplin music on the keyboard. Mom always made him keep the keyboard under their bed between uses because it clashed with their décor. But now he could keep it out permanently. Nothing like cancer to get your priorities straight.

When he got on the phone, Dad sounded ecstatic. No chemo needed. He even talked about hiking the Grand Canyon together after he healed from the surgery.

Our perspective on many things shifted. I hadn’t even known that men could get breast cancer. Its rarity became glaringly obvious to me when I completed my recent mammogram survey:

Question No. 1:

Is there any history of breast cancer in your family?

  • Mother
  • Sister
  • Grandmother
  • Aunt
  • There wasn’t even a box for father.
  • —Laura Barron lives in Vancouver, BC, and still hikes with her father, David.