Oct. 18, 2012
By Steven Ryan
Even the most aware have their blind spots. And sometimes lost in the sea of pink in October is that male breast cancer, while “relatively uncommon,” is not “rare.”
“It’s a pretty unlucky thing to get,” said Rich Adams, who was diagnosed with breast cancer several years ago. “I never thought it was something I had.”
Adams, president of United Industries Inc. in Everett and a former Saugus resident, hopes to raise awareness among men that breast cancer should be on their radars as well. He is now in remission after completing “hard treatment” for the cancer in August 2011.
“Probably the first of this year I started to feel like myself again,” Adams said. “I still don’t have 100 percent of my energy, but I go to the gym every day now over a year out.”
Adams, 66, was at the gym when he first noticed tenderness when he lowered a barbell onto his chest while on the bench press.
“I tapped myself with the barbell and thought, ‘Oh that really hurt,’” Adams said. “I am never sick. And I never gave a second thought to something negative.”
But two weeks later, while stepping out of the shower, his wife noticed his chest was swollen, prompting him to go to the hospital. There, they found a tumor “the size of a peanut M&M” in his breast tissue. Shortly after, he began his treatment, which was identical to how doctors treat women with breast cancer.
“When I went to get a mammogram, it was all women there,” Adams said. “I suppose they expected me to leave with one of them. But when I was asked to come in, it was like, ‘Wow!’”…They don’t have a specific way to treat men. You are treated the same way as a woman.”
Adams underwent a mastectomy at Melrose-Wakefield Hospital, went in for four sessions of chemotherapy and faced 30 sessions of radiation treatment. He currently lives in New Hampshire, near Lake Winnipesaukee, and would go to most of his doctor appointments in Stoneham, through Hallmark Health, after commuting to the Boston area for work.
This wasn’t Adams’ first brush with cancer. Ten years earlier, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer but said it was “easy” compared to battling breast cancer.
“I worked most of the time,” Adams said. “But [while being treated] it was really the first time I had to ask for help with things. I live on a lake and needed help with things like docking the boat, and I was in good shape when they found out about the cancer…It also does a job on your memory. For a while, I was beginning to wonder [if that would get better].”
Now, Adams’ only treatment is a pill he must take for about five years to help keep the cancer in remission. While acknowledging some self-consciousness about the side effects of radiation treatment, chemotherapy and the mastectomy — which includes losing hair and the removal of breast tissue — Adams feels they likely pale in comparison to the challenges of women being treated for breast cancer.
“I didn’t like losing hair, but I couldn’t imagine how it would be for a woman, how devastating it would be,” he said. “For a year, I didn’t like taking my shirt off at the gym. But I now take my shirt off at the pool and learn to live with it. It is what it is.”
One of his sisters, who used to work with him and now lives in New Mexico, was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. He hopes his experience with breast cancer can help her face the obstacles ahead. He also notes he has another sister, a daughter and three granddaughters who now get tested more frequently.
As for men, Adams reminds them to get tested too.
“Men should be aware of the fact it can happen to them,” he said. “If there are any indications, even if you don’t know of a family history, err on the side of being safe. Too often, men err on the side of not going to the doctor.”
Breast cancer awareness week
Recently, the state Legislature recognized the third week of October as Male Breast Cancer Awareness Week.
State Rep. Lou Kafka, D-Stoughton, was a main proponent for the designation after a constituent contacted him and told him her husband was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I had no idea it was a possibility,” Kafka said. “It came as a shock and a surprise. After talking to doctors, I learned it’s not common but not completely uncommon. Men should be made aware of the possibility.”
State Rep. Paul Donato, D-Medford, as the acting speaker when the proposal was made, helped shepherd the legislation through the House of Representatives.
“The genesis was because we are completely aware of the major impact of breast cancer on women, but men, when it comes to breast cancer, have also been affected by it, even though not to the same degree,” Donato said.
State Sen. Katherine Clark, D-Melrose, also emphasized the importance of raising male breast cancer awareness.
“Breast cancer is a devastating disease that affects many women in our communities. But too often overlooked is the fact that it strikes men as well,” she said. “This designation of Male Breast Cancer Awareness Week is a good reminder that we all must know the risk factors and signs of breast cancer, discuss any symptoms with our doctors, and work together to support more research for better treatments and a cure.”
What doctors say
Dr. Joseph Pennacchio from the Hallmark Health System Hematology and Oncology Center in Stoneham said his center usually sees at least one case of male breast cancer each year.
“It’s not that uncommon,” he said. “Doctors and patients need to be aware that it could happen.”
Pennacchio said male breast cancer is easier to treat since there is less breast tissue to remove.
“In a man, we usually do a mastectomy, even if it is only 50/50 if there is cancer,” he said. “It doesn’t involve a big surgery. If there is cancer, we approach it the same way as with a woman.”
But Pennacchio noted male breast cancer is a potentially aggressive disease. The hope is that men are able to detect any lumps in their breasts sooner than a woman since there is less breast tissue. Despite this, the male breast cancer cases the center usually sees are at a more advanced stage than in female cases.
“We probably see this because women are more likely to go in for mammograms,” he said. “I don’t like to make a general statement, but there is some truth to men [putting going to the doctor] on the backburner.”
Pennacchio does not anticipate the treatment of male breast cancer to change much in coming years, at least in comparison with how women are treated. But he noted the evolution of more personalized treatment for patients in general.
“There are tests done to look at 20 to 30 pieces of information at the center,” he said. “It might guide us more specifically on what to recommend for one patient and spare them treatments that may have more side effects.”