Turning 70 with Male Breast Cancer

June 25, 2020

"Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."

How did this happen? Seriously, the last time I looked I was running the Boston marathon and had not seen a doctor in over ten years; but that was a long time ago. When I was diagnosed with male breast cancer in 2014 at the age of sixty-four, I elected to forgo chemotherapy with the hope of living five years free of possible side effects from the recommended drugs. I had watched my wife die of ovarian cancer after several very difficult years on chemo, clinical trials and surgeries, so my decision was not made lightly. But suddenly I'm an old man and still cancer-free, but all of my "life alarms" are ringing with an intensity that has definitely caught my attention.

I do believe that age does not determine how we see ourselves or how we live our lives, but this number sort of sneaked up on me when I was looking the other way. Now that I think about it, cancer did the very same thing. On one fateful day not all that long ago, I was running up a long hill in Honolulu where I lived and while taking a shower after my workout, I discovered a tiny bump under my left breast. The rest, as we say, after seventy years--is history.

As cancer survivors, we learn to expect the unexpected. Along with our ability to adapt to an uncertain future, many of us get pretty good at turning a blind eye to the daily rigors of survival. A good example of this is the way in which we have had to learn to live with Covid-19 threatening the world, and especially those of us with compromised immune systems. I've never been reluctant to wear my mask while shopping at the grocery store, and I've adjusted to the absurdity of living in a science fiction sort of environment where life has become unrecognizable and a bit outside my comfort zone.

Turning seventy is like that too.

Just the other day I was in my sixties. But I have to wonder why these numbers are important. The barriers we invent are rather mythical, like borders between countries or differences between people. Looking down from space, there are no fences between us. Why then should turning seventy be so very different than turning seventeen?

I remember asking my grandmother once how old she felt inside. Her answer surprised me. She said she felt like she was twenty-two. And then she revealed a story to me about how she always wanted to be a professional singer and not the seamstress she had been for so many years. She was offered a scholarship to a prestigious music school in Chicago but her father, a strict and regimented man, refused to let her go. My grandmother told me she had never gotten over the anguish of being denied her life-time dream. It seemed to me that she had locked in that disappointment for all of the years that followed.

Cancer has the ability to lock in disappointment too; but only if we let it.

And it seems to me that turning seventy if I'm not careful, can have the same sort of deleterious effect. It's just a number after all. And now that it's caught my attention, it's time to let it go because this new decade brings much more than just another year of life. There is an opportunity here, not just to carry on with my family, friends, interests and aspirations; but to share some of the knowledge and possible wisdom that evolves with the years. Not all that long ago I was an infant in the world of cancer. Much of what I've learned has been through the experiences of others who got to this place before me. My obligation, once the birthday party is over, is simply to face forward for as long as life permits and to pass along a few of the survival lessons a very lucky seventy years old has learned.


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