My thoughts amassed into an inner tsunami whose fear-fed swells submerged all emotions and reactions. In its wake, disbelief stood alone and defiant.
I am a man and I got breast cancer. Then I got it again. As this unfamiliar diagnosis gradually penetrated my defenses, my mind scurried about desperately seeking out the truth, grasping for reality. How can this be? Men don’t get breast cancer.
I had a disease that I, like many others, associated only with women. As I slowly emerged from the shock of the diagnosis, the doctor’s words found shelter in the crevices of my emotional destruction and began to set root.
In January 2007 I learned that breast cancer does not discriminate. It is an equal opportunity intruder. This poisonous disease harbors no particular interest in breasts that are large or small, black, white, or brown. With no hint of religious intolerance, it invades the bodies of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists. Possessing no cares or qualms, breast cancer is comfortably at home in men and women.
For many men a diagnosis of breast cancer evokes embarrassment, shame, a reluctance to share, and a sense of being alone. In these dark moments fear becomes our leader. But what are we afraid of?
Following our cancer’s disclosure, we struggle with a therapy modeled solely on the ones prescribed for women and come face-to-face with the rarity of this disease in men. We are a lone blue raft in a sea of pink breast cancer vessels.
When we gather our courage and quietly inform those close to us, we encounter mirrored shock and unease. “What? You have breast cancer. But you are a man. Men don’t get breast cancer.”
Unsettled, their statements come drenched in discomfort. Inquiries into our medical status are cloaked in unease and become the elephant in the room. Their words slowly seep into our core and we silently wonder, Are they questioning our manhood?
Lodged in the depths of my being was a reluctance to share, to acknowledge my status as a breast cancer survivor; it was a resistance fed by fear. I retreated deeper within, saw my doctors, took the Tamoxifen, and completed my bloodwork as my denial and frustration with this disease grew. My recourse was to focus on that magical five-year mark. A time of remission, a reprieve, when I no longer had to acknowledge the cancer’s existence.
It took a recurrence in 2010 to awaken me from an intoxicating fear-induced slumber. Unveiled was a longing to connect with another man experiencing this cancer. What fears, frustrations, sense of loss did he possess? Did he feel alone? How did he cope? But I was to travel solo in this passage.
Many men are ill-at-ease sharing intimate emotive thoughts and fears. Ingrained is a belief that inner reflection, of being vulnerable, is weakness. Yet, it is in this space of uncertainty, this place of baring one’s soul, this exposure to ardent attack that we are at our strongest. Here we garner the courage to delve inward. It is a passage steeped in trepidation, a personal journey to our inner-most emotional labyrinth, our No Man’s Land.
But what are we afraid of? Is it the breast cancer or the perceived status of our manhood? The disease, or society’s view of who and what is a man? Our thoughts run rampant. What will people think? What will they say? How will they react? This will change everything!
Then there are the armchair quarterbacks. Those recognizing no boundaries, those not in the arena yet equipped with advice, opinions, and judgments. These pseudo leaders voice their views, render their verdicts of who is a man and how one should act. Standing at a critical crossroads, we observe the paths before us. One provides the safety of conforming to society’s limited definition of a man, a prisoner to what others think. The other less traveled road is one where confronting the fear, unease, and expectations of others’ beliefs is possible.
For years I empowered the armchair quarterbacks, allowing them to call the plays of my life. Questions of my maleness first arose as I dealt with being gay. Growing up in a time when society demanded and expected secrecy regarding one’s gayness, I caved to the thoughts, beliefs, and definitions of who and what is a man.
Now once again I found myself furiously treading the currents of my emotions, barely able to keep my head above the turbulence engulfing me. I was a man, a gay man with a disease associated with women. A double whammy!
My second diagnosis dropped me in uncharted territory, yet a determination to heal arose from deep within. I refused to allow breast cancer to own or define me, to embarrass or silence me. I was more than a job title, a sex, or a disease. Breast cancer forced me to plunge into the uncertainty and discomfort, and embrace my own definition of maleness.
When we challenge society’s interpretation of maleness, we secure an integral connection with our humanity. We expand beyond the prescribed limitations of what it means to be male and discover what is hidden within us.
Yes, men get breast cancer. And though it may generate awkwardness, unease, and a sense of isolation, it can be a catalyst for change, an opportunity to uncover one’s truth. Breast cancer does not diminish our maleness, but provides us with an opportunity to redefine how we should act, think, and be as a man.
Knowledge and openness is power. And in those moments of hesitation, when we fear the judgment of others, when we experience that flickering presence of shame, we simply ask, “What are we afraid of?”
Michael is the author of – Healing Within: My Journey with Breast Cancer. Contact Michael at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Michael lives in Greenwich, NY.
Update – In September 2015 Michael was diagnosed with Metastatic Breast Cancer. His journey to heal continues.