My Husband Was Diagnosed With Breast Cancer

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Losing a part of your body, or possibly your life, is traumatic for anyone — regardless of gender.

By Marcia G. Yerman

It was June of 2000. My husband B and I were on the cusp of separating. He was looking for an apartment and the atmosphere was tense. Our kindergarten-age son was aware that major changes were on the horizon.

One evening, in a calmer moment, he said to me, “I have this weird lump in my chest. Can you feel it?” I did. It didn’t seem normal. “You’d better make an appointment with your internist immediately,” I said. “Something’s not right.”

We had known each other for 12 years, and even though we were having intractable problems, this was a health issue affecting my son’s father. I sprang into action.

One doctor’s visit led to another. Within the week, I had found a well-recommended surgeon and scheduled a biopsy. My memories of taking him to the hospital remain crystal clear: We sat in a room filled with patients and families, as people nervously waited for their names to be called, announcing their procedure. A strident daytime talk show blared in the background.

I was allowed into the recovery room to sit with B while he gradually emerged from an anesthesia-induced fog. We waited for the surgeon to appear, revealing her findings.

She finally came in and leaned over the side rails of the bed. “I’m sorry to tell you that you have breast cancer,” she said gently. We were both in shock. As I tried to process the information, she stated matter-of-factly that I needed to call her office the following day. It was crucial to plan out the next steps.

I went into the lounge to call B’s family, and mine, to relate the news. Regardless of our marital problems, everything was now on hold. My husband’s life was on the line. 

I began doing research. I looked to see who in the public eye had struggled with the disease, and found that Shaft actor, Richard Roundtree, was a survivor. At that time, one in 1,600 American men were diagnosed with breast cancer. Today, the stats are even higher: 1 in 1,000. 

Luckily, the lump had been discovered relatively early, and the cancer was still in its initial stages. The oncologist advised a mastectomy, the removal of lymph nodes under the arm, chemotherapy, and then a regimen of Tamoxifen. Due to the removal of his lymph nodes, any cut or injury to B’s right arm could be a potential cause for infection — with serious ramifications.

Prior to his operation, B took photographs of his unmutilated body. It was way before the era of the selfie, but he wanted to document himself while he was still “whole.” Post-surgery, the affected side of his chest would bear a long scar. The nipple was gone. He was not interested in taking steps to reconstruct it.

The greatest lack of understanding came from those in the medical field who blithely dismissed the psychological ramifications of his disfigurement. Since the patient was a man, they determined that the surgery shouldn’t be a concern.

On one of my post-op visits to B, I ran into a group of surgical residents clustered outside of his room. They had just seen him during their rounds. We spoke about his prognosis. The primary on the case said to me, “Because he’s a guy, the mastectomy is really not a big deal.” 

I looked at him in disbelief. “Excuse me?” I responded. “You may be on your way to a stellar career as a surgeon, but your bedside manner is for shit.” I turned and walked away, hoping that in my anger I had perhaps left him with a learning moment.

About a month afterward, B, who is not much for introspection or talk therapy, joined a breast cancer support group for men. It provided some camaraderie, and an opportunity to alleviate the isolation around the challenges of what was considered a “woman’s disease.”

Fifteen years later, now battling a rare illness, signs that the cancer had migrated to one of B’s lungs were found. His oncologist suggested that the lesions had probably been there for a number of years, and that the stress from his current situation could have “brought it out.” B went back on a routine of Tamoxifen.

Now I had another worry: The future health of my son. We got approval for B to take the BRCA gene test, and waited with anxiety for the results. We needed to know if our son was at an increased risk for breast cancer. Luckily, the test came back negative.

Male breast cancer must become part of the narrative. It is already part of the data.

The medical community needs to make breast exams and education for their male patients the norm (how many doctors palpate men’s breast tissue as part of a routine exam?). It is essential for surgeons and oncologists to grasp the emotional impact of the diagnosis and to treat their male patients holistically, not as an aberration.

Losing a part of your body, or possibly your life, is traumatic for anyone — regardless of gender.


This article was originally published at Ravishly. Reprinted with permission from the author.


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