Sharing My Story: I’m a Male Breast Cancer Survivor
It was a beautiful October day in Captiva Island, Florida, where my family and I were on a short vacation at the end of the summer season. I was in a room of the condo we had rented. Housekeeping had recently damp-mopped the tile floor in the room, and as I walked across it, I slipped and took a fall that resulted in a concussion after my head hit the tile. Thankfully, the concussion was minor, the embarrassment of the fall was short-lived, and my bruises healed quickly.
While assessing my injuries, however, I found a mass on the left side of my chest that seemed odd to me. Thinking it was an internal bruise, I ignored it for a few weeks, but the mass didn’t go away. I started monitoring the area, which was on my left breast on the outside edge of the nipple. After a few weeks of watching it closely, I made an appointment with my family doctor. He examined the area, declared it a fatty mass, and I went on my way. That was in November. Around the first week of December, I asked my wife, Vicki, to examine the mass to see what she thought. She did and immediately suggested I make another appointment to see the family doctor. That visit ended up being different since the doctor was no longer focused on my head injury. He felt the mass several times and eventually told me I needed a mammogram. And thus began my journey of addressing what was suspected to be breast cancer.
The Women’s Center
On the day of the mammogram, there I was, all 6’1” and 250 pounds of me, heading into a women’s center for a mammogram. I cannot describe how uncomfortable I was nor some of the looks I got when I walked in the door. I had worked at Georgia Power for 40 years climbing poles, working hot primaries from a bucket truck and bare-handing 500,000 volts, yet in that women’s center, I felt reduced to a mere childlike image of my true self. Fortunately, the young woman who performed my mammogram was wonderful, understanding and patient as I tried to regain my composure after each attempt to get a good picture of the mass.
I also had an ultrasound that day. After the mammogram was complete, I immediately went to another part of the women’s center, where another kind young woman performed the test. As she did so, the first thing she said when she could see the mass on the screen was, “Does anyone in your family have a history of breast cancer?” You can imagine how I felt at this point. Once a doctor reviewed the ultrasound images, he told me that I would need to undergo a biopsy of the mass. By this time, I was resigned to the fact that I was going to die. I was shaken to the core until the doctor turned to me and said, “Don’t worry. You’ll die from something, but it will not be from this.” I felt a bit better after that, but I certainly was not jumping for joy. Much of this had occurred between Christmas and New Year’s Day, which put a real damper on the holiday season.
After the biopsy, I was instructed to go home and wait for my family doctor to call with the pathology report. Well, the doctor went on a week’s vacation after New Year’s, so after what seemed like an eternity, my wife finally got the call while I was still in New York working on a project through my consulting business. Vicki called to give me the information over the phone. It was nothing more than confirmation of what we had expected: The mass was cancerous, and I needed to see a breast specialist the following week.
Breast Specialist Visits
After several sleepless nights of worry and wonder, the day of my breast specialist appointment arrived. The office walls were covered with paintings of women as well as a lot of pink ribbons. I don’t remember seeing one picture of a man and once again felt extremely uncomfortable because of both my medical condition and the office décor. When my name was called to see the specialist, I noticed a few raised eyebrows in the waiting room.
The breast specialist I saw that day, Dr. Scott Timbert, had been treating breast cancer for over 20 years. He also became my surgeon. Once he read my pathology report, we started discussing options. One of those options was a total double mastectomy. Dr. Timbert told me I would need to undergo genetic testing to determine if I was a candidate, which I did.
On the second visit to Dr. Timbert’s office, we discussed the genetic testing results, which had come back negative, so we decided together to remove only my left breast. Then we discussed the surgery timeline. I, of course, wanted my problem solved that very day. Just knowing the tumor was inside me was a very disturbing feeling. Unfortunately, even though it was early January, February 23 was the first date Dr. Timbert had available. (At the time, I could not believe he had that many patients needing breast cancer surgery. Later, I was absolutely shocked to find out the number of people he tended to with this disease.) When I asked how it would affect me to wait another month for surgery, Dr. Timbert told me the cancer had been inside my breast for years and waiting another month or so for surgery wouldn’t make much of a difference. I felt that was a matter of opinion – it would certainly make a difference to me. But between the doctor’s schedule and some customer commitments I had to tend to, we settled on Monday, February 29, Leap Day.
For me, routine business was not that routine for the five weeks or so between scheduling my surgery date and the day of the surgery. I found it exceedingly difficult to carry on with my work. Around that time, I decided to become a male breast cancer advocate, explaining at every training session I led that men, too, can be diagnosed with breast cancer. Now, I teach electrical safety to electricians and utility lineworkers, which typically are a very bullheaded and strong-willed group of men. At the end of each class, I would ask the group who the toughest, meanest guy was in the room. More than one person would raise their hand or be pointed out by someone else. I would then ask those men, “What would knock you to your knees? What would take the wind right out of your sails in a second?” They would usually look at me strangely, and then I would tell them my breast cancer story and advise them to either do regular self-checks or ask someone to help them with those checks. I advise everyone reading this to do the same. And if you feel something, do not ignore it; little things can become exceptionally large and hazardous to your health.
The Day of Surgery
Unsurprisingly, I slept extraordinarily little the night before the surgery. Then I was up at 4 a.m. to shower and drive to the hospital the day of the surgery. Check-in went smoothly. Next, I got into a hospital gown, and medical personnel started my IV. Dr. Timbert stopped by to inject a marker directly into the tumor to identify the margins of the tumor as well as any lymph nodes that had a presence of cancer. Shortly after that, I kissed my wife goodbye and was ushered off to the operating room.
I don’t remember anything about the surgery beyond getting onto the operating room table. I woke up in a blur in the recovery room, expecting to be in pain, but I didn’t have any. I was very thirsty, though. The surgery had lasted about two hours, and I now had two Hemovacs attached to me, which are used to drain fluid from the body. The tubes exited under my left arm to the bags attached to my “compression girdle,” as I called it. I stayed in recovery for a little while before I was rolled to a room upstairs and transferred to the hospital bed. Once I was settled, I knew the next hurdle would be getting up to use the bathroom. I’d had an IV running for over five hours, so I knew it wouldn’t be long before I had to go. Eventually, I rang the call button, and a nurse came to help me out of bed. I was able to move fairly easily and walked to the restroom. Another nurse came by after lunch and brought me the neatest little pillow. A women’s group at a local Presbyterian church had put together an outreach program for breast cancer patients, through which they distribute smile pillows, which are small pillows shaped almost like a smiley face emoji. You wouldn’t believe how much comfort that pillow was to me. Placing it under my armpit, it helped me deal with the weight of the tubes where they exited my body. Simply put, the gesture was amazing, and my wife and I sent a thank you card to the women’s group.
Dr. Timbert stopped by to see me in the early evening. He told me that everything had gone well during the surgery and that he’d only had to remove two lymph nodes. I then ate a bit of supper and tried to rest, although there’s really no such thing when your vitals and fluid drainage are being checked every few hours.
I signed my release papers early the next morning and headed home wearing my girdle, with a Hemovac pinned to my compression bandage, all under the largest button-down shirt I owned. I’d been given a prescription for an antibiotic and one for pain, but I never ended up needing the pain medication. I was also under doctor’s orders not to pick up more than 5 pounds, and I had to avoid straining myself as well as walking very much. I wasn’t allowed to shower for a little while either, plus I had to track the drainage amounts from the Hemovac.
Home and Recovery
After the surgery, I spent about two weeks in a recliner. It was exceedingly difficult for me to sleep with the tubes in my left armpit area. After that two-week period, I had a follow-up appointment with Dr. Timbert, who told me everything was going well but not to shower yet, plus I needed to continue tracking the amount of drainage into the Hemovac. I went home and back to my routine. The second follow-up with Dr. Timbert also went well, and at that point the tubes were finally removed from my body. Boy, did it feel good to get those things out of me – until another follow-up appointment the next week when Dr. Timbert drained over 500 cubic centimeters of fluid out of my left side. That was strange. I thought the breast was growing back, but it was just fluid due to the outer layer of skin being detached from my rib cage. The tissue that had been removed left a huge void, and until the skin reattaches, fluid collects. I wasn’t in any pain, though, prior to the drainage – just some discomfort.
Today, I’m still on my journey of recovery, but I dearly hope there will be no more chapters in this particular story. If you are interested in learning more about any of the details I’ve shared here, I’m more than happy to connect with you. Please email me at [email protected].
About the Author: Danny Raines, CUSP, safety consultant, distribution and transmission, retired from Georgia Power after 40 years of service and opened Raines Utility Safety Solutions LLC, providing compliance training, risk assessments and safety observation programs. He also is an affiliate instructor at Georgia Tech Research Center OSHA Outreach in Atlanta.
Editor’s Note: Want more from Danny Raines? Check out the new Voice of Experience Podcast. Listen today at https://incident-prevention.com/podcasts or search “Incident Prevention” wherever you get your podcasts.