I Had No Clue Men Could Get Breast Cancer — Until I Was Diagnosed

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By Ronnie Pace as told to Sarah Klein

In 2013, I had a CT scan after seeing a couple of specialists about a dry cough. When I went back to the doctor’s office for the results, the cough was gone, so I figured there wasn’t much to say. I stood up to leave, and the doctor told me to sit down. “You don’t hear a doctor say this often,” he told me. “You have a lump in your right breast. We can watch it for six months.”

I looked at him like a deer in headlights. “What are we watching for?” That’s how naive I was. He told me it could be malignant. “Malignant — like cancer?”

“Yes, men get breast cancer,” he said. I had no clue. I had never heard of that in my life.

Only one man in 1,000 will get breast cancer in his lifetime. So I figured I had at least a 99 percent chance that it wasn’t cancer! Still, I didn’t want to wait six months. I knew I couldn’t be at peace knowing cancer was a possibility. I chatted with my primary care doctor, also a good friend, who said he wouldn’t be too concerned, but that if I was concerned we should do a biopsy. The biopsy came back malignant.

I live not far from Houston, so I went to MD Anderson [Cancer Center] for care. I figured since male breast cancer is rare, I wanted to be treated at a place that dealt with cancer all the time. They did genetic testing that showed I did not have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, which increase breast cancer risk.

My mother had breast cancer, but because I was negative for those mutations, the doctors thought my DNA just decided to go haywire. Another test showed I only had about an 8 percent chance of recurrence. But there aren’t many treatment options for men other than mastectomy, since we don’t have much breast tissue.

“There aren’t many treatment options for men other than mastectomy, since we don’t have much breast tissue.”

My wife was very concerned — like any wife would be, I think — but she was making nervous chatter when we talked to my surgeon. She blurted out, “Well, my husband’s talked about reconstruction, but he can’t decide if he wants to be a big B or a small C!” She never says stuff like that! We had a good laugh about that. We maintained that sense of levity; we knew we still needed to be looking at things from a positive perspective.

The mastectomy and recovery went well, and afterward I took tamoxifen, a type of hormone therapy that lowers the chance of breast cancer recurrence. (At least it does in women — I’m being treated with medicine that’s only been tested in women). I didn’t need any radiation or chemotherapy, so I called myself “one and done” and thought that was the end of it.

But in August 2015, I had a chance to appear in a male breast cancer documentary. I was asked to take off my shirt and show what I looked like as a man with a mastectomy scar. I put my hand on the scar, and my fingertips touched a lump. I froze inside. I managed to keep my facial expression benign, but it went right to my head. Am I less afraid or more afraid, given that I know more than I did two years ago?

I went back to my care team, and I needed surgery again. It tore me up that I had to tell my wife, my daughters and my grandkids that I had cancer again. They lived through it the first time with me, so it was gut-wrenching. Because the tamoxifen probably didn’t do the job for me, I did 33 days of radiation therapy. I finished radiation in December 2015.

I have been the recipient of a pretty life-changing diagnosis, but I’ve decided that I’m going to help other people because of it. I started volunteering on committees at MD Anderson to improve the patient experience, and I have written MD Anderson blogs about my story.

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Every three to six months I have a follow-up appointment or scan. I’m also taking another drug, a type of hormone-suppressing medication called an aromatase inhibitor. I’m tolerating the side effects; the alternative, not taking it, would increase my chances of recurrence.

About 460 men die each year from breast cancer in the U.S. because it’s detected late. Maybe they find a lump and ignore it because they don’t know they can get breast cancer. I didn’t know a man could get breast cancer. I was so totally unaware. I’ve talked to guys who waited years to discuss a lump because it made them feel like they were less of a man, it was a female disease. That machismo irritates me.

Sometimes you can’t be cured, but you can always be healed. There’s a difference. Sometimes it’s not going to be okay. All I’m looking for is to have another day to work, to be with my family, and to spread awareness.

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