1 in 2,470 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. And I am one of them.
During October you are probably used to seeing the aisles at your grocery store turn pink. I believe the term used is “pink-washing.”
You’ll most likely read and hear countless stories of incredible women – mothers, sisters, wives, grandmothers – who are battling this terrible disease.
The stories of the 2,470 men are fewer and far between – but we too are fathers, brothers, husbands and grandfathers. For those of us who make up that statistic, our stories might be the hardest to tell.
Three years ago, when I was 45 years old, I received the news that I had Stage IV breast cancer.
How could that be, I thought. Isn’t breast cancer something that affects women?
I kept saying “why me” and “how did this happen?”
Since I heard those words I began thinking about everything – my wife Lisa, our two children, relationships with my friends, co-workers and neighbors. My head was spinning. I thought about places I wanted to visit, experiences I wanted to have with my family, and projects I wanted to complete in our home.
When I was first diagnosed, we received support from friends and neighbors, but over time that began to fade. The calls from friends and their children became fewer and farer between.
We found that over time we stopped being included in invitations to social gatherings. All of the sudden we went from being a friend or colleague, to being that family whose dad had “that disease.”
I will never forget the time I had a co-worker go to shake my hand and then pull away at the last minute, like he was afraid I was contagious.
Yes, unfortunately I have many stories like that.
As one can imagine I began to feel very isolated and…different. I felt like everything that was happening to my family was my fault, even though deep down I knew that it was no one’s “fault.”
On top of the social stigma we suddenly faced, we also were dealing with an increased financial burden. News alert, cancer is financially draining! The costs of medicine, treatments, supplements and food are expensive.
Following my diagnosis I continued to work, and my wife continued her job as a schoolteacher, but the strain on our family was very evident. My wife tried to bring in additional income through tutoring because it was too exhaustive for me to get a second job.
But we have figured it out. And I now understand why the invitations stopped being sent. Why the co-worker didn’t want to shake my hand. Why my dad friends all of the sudden stopped calling.
They didn’t know what to say. They didn’t know how to react.
We have so many powerful examples around us of women joining together to fight breast cancer, and men rallying around the women they love. But they didn’t know how to approach me, talk to me, be friends with me anymore.
And then something happened.
I got a call from Little Pink Houses of Hope saying that my family and I were being invited to spend a week in Key West, free of charge. Plus, we wouldn’t have to plan a thing. All we needed to do was book our flight and we’d arrive at a home that would be ours for the week, including a fully stocked fridge and a calendar of optional activities that had already been planned for us.
Remember when I said that a cancer diagnosis is a financial drain? That doesn’t leave much room in the budget for a family vacation, nor does anyone in our family have the time, or emotional energy, to plan a trip of any kind unless it involves a visit to a doctor or treatment facility.
Little Pink took care of all of that for us so we didn’t have to worry. All we had to do was show up and finally enjoy some rest and relaxation.
Little Pink gave us hope for something better than what was going on in our lives at the time. When we attended the retreat we met other families who were going through similar experiences. I no longer felt isolated or different. My family, especially the kids, was able to meet other people going through similar experiences.
Through it all we’ve remained a family. And now, when I think about that earlier question I asked myself, “why me,” I think we’ve figured out the answer. My wife tells me that in life “there is a reason for everything and there are no coincidences.”
It has become my mission to help increase awareness for breast cancer, and to help people understand that this is a disease that can affect anyone. By sharing my story, I hope to help make a difference in the lives of others.
Following that experience I knew I needed to share my story to help educate others, and provide a male perspective on what you can do if you or one of your friends are diagnosed with cancer.
So I’ve compiled a few, easy tips that I wish someone had provided me at the beginning of this journey, or provided my male friends so they knew how to be there for me instead of feeling compelled to stop calling, or stop checking in.
• Stay in touch. We may not always be up for attending a neighborhood gathering, but it means a lot to still be included and know people are thinking about us. Reach out. Email, text, call. Let them know you are thinking about them.
• Don’t ask, just offer. One of the hardest questions I get asked is “what can I do to help.” Instead, make a suggestion like “why don’t I pick up your kids and bring them home from school” or “let us watch the kids while you’re at an appointment.” Even small things – like yard work or house chores – can make a big difference and help ease some of the burden.
• Talk to your kids. Talk to your own kids about what cancer is and what a diagnosis means for a family. Help give them a better understanding of what their friends are going through. A little education could go a long way in helping dispel some of the fear that results from the unknown.
I hope that this October, you’ll think about all the people affected by breast cancer. Be there for them. Support them. Love them.
Applications for participants and volunteers for the 2018 retreat season are now open. To learn more about Little Pink Houses of Hope, visit littlepink.org.