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Three Men, All Seriously Ill with the Unimaginable: Breast Cancer


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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - A retired military man, an attorney, a cop.

Three men, all stunned by the same diagnosis, one most men never fear.

Breast cancer.

All three survivors now share their stories with men and women, family and friends, anyone who will listen.

They want us all to know: Men get breast cancer, too.

An estimated 1,300 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, less than 1 percent of all breast cancer cases. About 400 will die.

Because men have less breast tissue than women, it is easier for cancer to spread to the muscle and chest wall, says Dr. Nicole Hodgson, oncologist at the University of Miami's Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.

One troubling statistic shows the prognosis for men as a group is worse than for women, mainly because men tend to be diagnosed in later stages.

Some men don't realize they can get breast cancer, says Bobbi Meyers, executive director of the Miami-Fort Lauderdale affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Foundation. And some doctors might dismiss their symptoms as being a pulled muscle, something that will go away. The patient may need to insist on a mammogram, she says.

Meyers points to the numbers.

"One-third of men (with breast cancer) die," she says. "One-third of women don't die. They are sent for a mammogram. Early detection is what's saving lives in women."

`GOD, YOU'RE A HEALER'

Clement Hill has lost several family members to breast cancer - all women.

He never thought it was something that might happen to him.

Then a couple years ago, the 59-year-old noticed a clear, sticky liquid oozing from his nipples. Sweat, he figured. Just in case, he made a doctor's appointment.

Hill knew men could get breast cancer. He remembered reading about actor Richard Roundtree, the original Shaft, and his bout with the disease.

Hill's breasts could not fit in the mammogram machine, so his doctor ordered an ultrasound. It showed masses in both breasts. One was as big as a grapefruit, the other the size of an orange.

A biopsy came next. It might be cancer, his doctor told him.

It was a nine-mile drive from the doctor's office, but Hill can barely remember the drive home. In shock, he remembers crying and praying.

"I looked up and said, `God, you're a healer. This is your job. This is your job to worry.""

Hill's left breast was removed in April 2001, his right in July.

Hill was lucky. His tumors were benign.

Still, Hill considers himself a breast cancer survivor.

He went through the surgery and the roller coaster of emotions that came with it.

When he first learned his diagnosis, he told only his family, then a close friend at church, who noticed his spirits were down.

With the tumors came fear and anxiety, but also a great outpouring of love. In the end, he says, the experience was a blessing that brought him a greater appreciation for life.

"God's going to take care of this," he recalls telling friends. "And he did."

Now Hill, originally from Philadelphia, is on a crusade to raise awareness of the disease, speaking to support groups in Florida. He shared his story with the entire congregation at his church, Bethel Full Gospel Baptist Church in Richmond Heights, a Miami suburb where he has joined a support group for breast cancer survivors. And he is a mentor in the Susan G. Komen Foundation's Buddy for You program, which matches survivors with people who have been recently diagnosed.

Men don't talk about emotions in their everyday lives, Meyers says. Imagine being diagnosed with a disease typically associated with women.

"There's a macho side that prevents them from opening up," Meyers says. "This program tries to help them overcome that and give them someone to talk to who's been there."

Each year, Hill speaks to students in biology class at Miami Palmetto Senior High, where he is in charge of truancy prevention.

Only he doesn't talk about skipping school.

"You can see the shock on their faces," he says. "They see a man who tells them he's had breast cancer."

Hill fought in Vietnam while a sergeant in the U.S. Air Force. In 1978, he was transferred to Homestead Air Force Base, where he retired in 1985 after 21 years in the service.

Yet he tells the boys to get rid of their macho attitudes.

"The African-American man is at risk for this type of cancer because he has the stupid idea it's never going to happen to him," he says.

He tells the boys and girls to listen to their bodies.

"I emphasize that cancer has no color barrier or gender barrier. The devastation you see in a war zone is nowhere near what you can do to your own body if you don't take care of it."

NO LAUGHING MATTER

Plantation, Fla., attorney David Kingsley, 56, discovered a lump below his left nipple after riding an exercise bike.

That was 12 years ago, in December 1991. A month later, after a biopsy confirmed cancer, Kingsley underwent a modified radical mastectomy of his left breast, then six months of chemotherapy. He now gets yearly mammograms.

Six years ago, Kingsley became a volunteer with the American Cancer Society's Reach to Recovery program, offering one-on-one support to male breast cancer patients before, during and after treatment.

He's someone they can call if they have questions, or want to talk about their feelings. Because of the rarity of male breast cancer, Kingsley usually counsels four to six men a year. He has seen denial, shock, even embarrassment in those he counsels.

He understands, because he's been there.

"I have encountered men who feel embarrassed," Kingsley says. "They feel it's affecting their masculinity."

Most find it reassuring when Kingsley tells them he's a 12-year survivor.

He knows cancer can take a toll not only on the patient, but on the entire family. When he was diagnosed, his son was in college, his daughter in high school.

When Kingsley told his friends he had breast cancer, they thought he was joking, like he usually did.

One man even teased him about the wig he wore after losing his hair to chemo treatments.

Kingsley responded with grace.

"You probably don't know this, but I have breast cancer," he told the man.

"Men don't get breast cancer," the man replied. Kingsley explained that, oh yes, they do.

He has been trying to get the word out ever since, says his wife and law partner, Louise Kingsley.

"Men who feel a lump (need to) get it checked out," Kingsley says, noting that breast cancer can be more aggressive in men.

WAKE-UP CALL

Frank Maye, 52, felt a searing pain in his chest 14 years ago. While changing his infant son's diaper, the boy kicked him in the chest. Maye felt a lump.

Then a lieutenant with the Miami Police Department, Maye wondered what it was. Torn cartilage, the doctor told him during his annual physical two weeks later.

But the pain became more intense. Nine months later, in January 1990, Maye paid a visit to a second doctor, who told him the pain could be a warning sign for something far more sinister. A mammogram came next, then a biopsy.

Maye's life went into a tailspin. Soon after learning he had breast cancer, he underwent surgery to remove both breasts.

More changes were ahead.

In 1993, more than a year after the surgery, he retired after 21 years with the Miami Police Department.

Meanwhile, his marriage was falling apart.

Divorce came seven years after his surgery, and two years after his daughter was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.

All the while, he felt like "damaged goods," fearing no woman would ever love him.

Breast cancer sends both men and women on a roller-coaster of emotions. Some fear their spouses will leave them, or that strangers will notice something amiss. Will people stare if they take their shirt off at the beach? Will their spouses find them attractive? Will they leave?

Maye, who has since remarried, shares the story of his divorce with cancer survivors. He knows they may be facing similar fears, and he wants to give them hope.

Maye also knows what it's like to lose someone to cancer. His father, diagnosed with lung cancer in October 2001, was given just a few months to live. He died in February 2002.

"Cancer will wake you up," Maye says. "It's the greatest blessing a person can have. It makes everything in life come into perspective."

A licensed acupuncturist, Maye now practices Chinese medicine and is a frequent speaker on the cancer seminar circuit.

At the Day of Caring in April 2003, an event hosted by the Komen Foundation to raise breast cancer awareness, Maye told of his own battle and that of his 15-year-old daughter, Tamara, a 10th-grader.

Tamara was 9 when she was diagnosed with histiocytosis, a malignancy in her cervical spine. She underwent surgery that left a scar along her neck. At 13, she told her father she was worried people might notice her scar.

"Sweetheart, that is not a scar," Maye told his daughter. "That is a badge. A badge of honor."

Just as Maye counseled his daughter, he mentors male breast cancer patients in the Komen Foundation's Buddy for You program.

At the moment, Maye has a buddy to mentor. Hill does not.

"Not too many of us guys," Maye says.

But chances are, one day Hill will be a buddy for someone with male breast cancer.

It's all in the numbers: 1,300 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year. One percent of all breast cancer cases.

Says Meyers: "One percent is still one percent."

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MEN

1,300 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year nationwide. Of those, 400 men, or 31 percent, will die.

WOMEN

211,300 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year nationwide. Of those, 35,800 women, or 17 percent, will die.

Men represent 1 percent of all breast cancer cases.

Symptoms of breast cancer in men include: nipple discharge (usually bloody), nipple inversion, breast lump, occasionally local pain, itching and pulling sensation.

The survival rate of men and women is comparable by stage of disease at the time of diagnosis. However, men are usually diagnosed at a later stage, because they are less likely to report symptoms.

SOURCE: Susan G. Komen Foundation

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SUPPORT GROUP

Reach to Recovery program: Trained volunteers offer comfort and support to breast cancer patients before, during and after treatment. For information, call the American Cancer Society at 800-227-2345.

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(c) 2003 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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