Raising Awareness About Male Breast Cancer

 

For men diagnosed with breast cancer, the diagnosis can be a double-blow, first that it is cancer, and second that it is cancer usually associated only with women.  It may seem unusual because breast cancer has such a high profile but when men are diagnosed with the disease they often face stigma and are ashamed or embarrassed about having the disease.  Even more troubling, many men don’t believe they can get breast cancer which means they are less likely to see their doctor if they notice any of the signs.  Early detection is as important for men as it is for women which is why raising awareness about breast cancer in men is also important.

Raising Awareness About Male Breast Cancer“Michael Kovarik of Greenwich never thought he would develop breast cancer, but he did.

He was stunned when he got the news seven years ago.

“I couldn’t wrap my head around it,” Kovarik said. “I’ve never heard of a man getting breast cancer.”

But males have breasts. And few diseases are as associated with one sex as breast cancer, except those — like cervical cancer — that are exclusive to one sex.

People magazine recently splashed across its cover a “bald and beautiful” Joan Lunden, who is undergoing chemotherapy. The Breast Cancer Site’s Facebook page shows its visitors how to decorate cookies to look like brassieres with a cookie cutter and pink frosting. There are countless pink-themed rides, runs, walks and sporting events dedicated to raising money for research.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure, formerly known as the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, may have done the best job of all in making us think it is a women’s disease when it began using a symbolic pink ribbon 32 years ago.

Although male breast cancer is rare, it exists.

Locally, oncology resource nurse educator Vickie Yattaw said in her 10-year career at C.R. Wood Cancer Center at Glens Falls Hospital, only six men have been diagnosed.

Nationally, the American Cancer Society predicts 2,360 men will develop the disease this year and 430 will die from it. Contrast that with the 232,670 new cases in women and the prediction that 40,000 will succumb.

Kovarik feels many men may still believe the disease can’t happen to them or they’re too embarrassed to seek medical attention if they notice something wrong.

He has been working to raise awareness about male breast cancer and wrote a book about his experience, donating copies to about 30 cancer centers.

Kovarik also contacted media outlets across the country to share his story, but has received little response.

“It seems it hasn’t been on their radar right now,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s considered overkill with all the talk of breast cancer in women, or what.”

Diagnosis

In 2006 when he was 50, Kovarik was a third-grade teacher in a South Colonie School when he felt a lump in his left breast.

His physician thought it was a cyst but wanted to check it. Kovarik resisted, wanting to wait to see if anything developed.

Within a few weeks, his nipple inverted. The doctor immediately sent him to a surgeon, who recommended a lumpectomy. Kovarik had it done and got the results at the end of January in 2007.

It was cancer, the surgeon said, but test results showed it was a tumor that had metastasized from Kovarik’s lung. Within the next day, however, an X-ray was done that determined there was no cancer in his lung and that the disease had originated in his breast.

“It was interesting that this was 2007 and the lab could not even fathom this was breast cancer for a man,” Kovarik said.

As word of his diagnosis spread through the school community, he felt embarrassed and isolated. People didn’t believe him at first when he told them.

Kovarik underwent a mastectomy of his left breast during day surgery. When it came time to remove the bandages, his side was swollen and there was a swishing sound when he moved.

His emotions were “all over the place.” He was afraid about whether the cancer was all gone, how he would look after he healed and how others would view him.

“I now have a clearer understanding of what women must experience with their breasts,” Kovarik said.

He was prescribed the cancer drug, Tamoxifen. The lump was located close to his nipple, so his oncologist gave him the choice of either undergoing radiation or having the nipple removed. He chose surgery.

Kovarik had always struggled with self confidence and a negative body image. Losing the nipple was losing part of himself, he thought.

He is also gay. He was ending a relationship and wondered if his appearance would affect future relationships.

“I think our society itself is so hooked on looks, but the gay culture — it’s even more magnified. Looks are so much. What other gay man was going to look at me?” Kovarik said.

The nipple removal was done during his spring break. At about the same time, Kovarik’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

That summer, he underwent genetic testing and found he had the BRCA 2 gene, a mutation that put him at a higher risk for breast cancer.

On the advice of a friend, Kovarik started reading books on positive thinking and how it can affect health. He went for counseling and began dealing with some long-buried emotional issues.

Up to this point, Kovarik had been so self-conscious he wouldn’t take off his shirt to go swimming. A turning point came when he was vacationing in Maine and saw a man with no arm swimming in the ocean.

“I was laying down on the blanket. I think my hands were gripping the sand and then they relaxed. And then I did it,” Kovarik recalled. “It was terrifying. It was empowering. It was both.”

Normal

Kovarik refocused on his teaching career and making it to the 5-year mark from his disease, hoping he could eventually be considered cured. In January 2008, a year from his initial diagnosis, he underwent nipple reconstruction. He continued on the Tamoxifen and went for blood tests and mammograms at scheduled intervals.

Gradually, his life returned to normal. He met up with a friend he had known more than 20 years before and began dating. Although he was still teaching at South Colonie, he moved in 2009 from Guilderland to a house in Washington County with his partner.

Kovarik wasn’t happy with the cancer drug, though. He felt it was causing fatigue, a lack of sexual desire and weight gain. By this time, his original oncologist retired and he was seeing a different one.

At a checkup in November 2010, the doctor discovered something wrong on his left side by his scar.

He got the news the night before Thanksgiving that the cancer had returned. He couldn’t believe he was going through it a second time.

“I was sitting in the chair with the phone. I remember going ‘No. No!’ The doctor was talking and in my head, all I’m hearing is ‘You people have been checking me every six months. How could this be?’ I just started sobbing,” Kovarik said.

In early December, he had surgery to remove the lump. Before Christmas, he returned to his oncologist. She had conferred with other doctors because she wasn’t sure of a treatment plan for male patients when the Tamoxifen proved ineffective and the disease came back.

Kovarik was put on a regimen of 6 1/2 weeks of radiation and Lupron, a drug commonly given to men with prostate cancer. The side effects were rough. He experienced hot flashes, mood swings, “decimation” of his testosterone levels and pain in his groin.

In February 2011, Kovarik told his doctor he was “getting battered.” Although she sympathized, she told him he needed to stay on the Lupron.

“At that point I knew, somehow, I had to change this course,” he said.

He consulted with a homeopathic doctor, another oncologist and a general practitioner in Vermont, who integrated “energy medicine” into traditional modes of treatment. Kovarik began yoga, acupuncture and reiki.

He stopped the Lupron.

In response, his new oncologist recommended a mastectomy of the right breast as a preventive measure.

“I just kind of went with it,” Kovarik said.

The surgery was performed in June 2011 and the following April, in 2012, an artist tattooed two nipples on his chest. There was some concavity when he glimpsed at himself in the mirror, but having something resembling nipples helped give him the normalcy he needed.

He retired in 2012 and spent his time writing “My Journey with Breast Cancer: Healing Within.”

At his last exam in August, Kovarik had a slightly elevated white blood cell count but said the doctor believes it was caused by an infected gum that followed the removal of two teeth.

“I’m feeling the best I’ve felt in years,” he said.

He acknowledged his path to healing may not be right for everyone, but worked for him.

He also wants people to know his sexual orientation had nothing to do with the cancer.

“I happen to be a gay male who has breast cancer. It’s not only gay men who get breast cancer,” he said.

Kovarik continues to adjust to his post-surgery body. After some trepidation, he agreed to let Post-Star photographer Steve Jacobs take photos of him without a shirt.

“People need to know there’s breast cancer in men. It’s not a comfortable subject to talk about, but it’s not anything to be ashamed of,” he said. “I’m thriving, not surviving.”

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