This essay originally appeared on BlogHer.
In 1978, a few weeks after Christmas, my father had a radical mastectomy. The last words he said to me before the surgery were, “they can take my nipple but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let them take my ovaries.” So like my father to lighten the mood with a joke but, of course, cancer is no laughing matter.
A month before, my father had found a small pea size lump just below his left nipple. He was lucky to have doctors who immediately recognized the lump for what it was: breast cancer. Then, as now, breast cancer was rare in men. Only 2% of newly diagnosed cases each year are men. However, because so few people recognize that men can be afflicted with this disease, diagnosis often comes at a very late stage when treatment is difficult and, sadly, often too late.
I don’t remember much from that Christmas. I was sixteen and busy with my own teenage dramas. My parents decided to wait until after the holiday to tell us so we had no idea our family was at risk. I wonder of the silent pain they must have suffered. What fears were coursing through their veins as we ripped open our gifts and ate the holiday meal? In many ways, I am grateful to them for their discretion. Besides worrying, what could I really do?
I called my father the morning of his surgery. My parents insisted we children go to school and treat this day like any other day. But, I had snuck out of my biology class to wish him luck and to tell him I loved him. When I spoke to him, he, the center of our universe — the rock under which we all found shade — was nearly incoherent. They had given him Vicodin to calm his nerves, but the drug made him so loopy he wasn’t making any sense. It was then that I became truly afraid. I returned to my biology class and tried to make sense of the DNA sequence our teacher was trying to drill into our heads. It was hard to see the patterns of Ds, As, Ts, Ps and Gs though my tears. Years later, this genetic template would be at the root of concerns about my own risk for breast cancer, and the source of an ongoing debate about whether I should get tested for the BRAC 1 and BRAC 2 genes.
My father’s surgery was successful. The cancer was entirely contained within the lump and had not spread to his lymph nodes or other parts of his body. He did not require chemotherapy or even radiation. His recovery, he has told me, was uneventful. The only reminder of his dance with breast cancer is a long and thick scar that runs across the left side of his chest as though one eye is winking, making a last joke for us all.
My father is shy about his breast cancer. “It is embarrassing,” he says. He is not alone. Most men don’t want to discuss their diagnosis or their recovery. The machinery in place to advocate and support breast cancer survivors is, understandably, geared towards women. When I go for my annual mammogram, I think about my father in this room filled with women. The walls are Pepto Bismal pink. The women, naked from the waist up and covered with a thin garment that does not hide or support the pendulum of their breasts, do not acknowledge each other. No one wants to be here, least of all, I imagine, him.
It is unclear whether I am at greater risk for breast cancer. There are so few men who have had it, and fewer still who have survived, that studies of male breast cancer are difficult to conduct. The vast majority of breast cancers occur in women and this, I believe, is where our focus should be.
However, as October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I thought it important to share my family’s experience. When I read the stories of Nancy Nick, Ashley WennersHerron and Tony Via whose fathers all died of breast cancer due to poor diagnosis and lack of awareness, I know I was lucky. My father has lived long enough to see me marry, to meet his three grandchildren, and to prove that a good joke is still the best medicine. For this, I am deeply grateful.