Imagine you and your wife dedicating your lives doing research about cancer almost all your lives then both of you get breast cancer at the age of 46.
That is what happened to Oliver Bogler, PHD , a senior vice president of Academic Affairs and professor of neurosurgery research at MD Anderson and his wife Irene Newsham, Ph.D who works at the same institution.
There is a myth amongst many people that breast cancer is only for women something that Bogler, strongly disagrees with.
“You must have a prostrate to have prostrate cancer, a cervix to have cervical cancer and breasts to have breast cancer.” Those were his opening remarks while addressing delegates at the 8th Stop Cervical, Breast and Prostrate cancer in Africa conference recently held in Windhoek ,Windhoek .
I must admit that despite being surrounded by atleast ten African first ladies for days, this was the part that I loved the most at the Cancer conference.Bogler, a soft spoken yet very eloquent and patient speaker can make a class 2 pupil understand breast cancer very well.
Bogler, went ahead to explain that men have breasts too and so it is not impossible to have breast cancer.
“The chances of a man having breast cancer is however very minimal at about 1 in 1000. This makes many men,I included not to think of going for a test.”
Bogler and his wife who are both cancer researchers were diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. He was diagnosed with male breast cancer. Five years earlier, his wife, Irene Newsham, had also been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“When my wife, Irene and I moved to Houston to work at MD Anderson, we had no idea how important a role it would play in our lives. Of course, we realized it would be an important career move for us to join this top cancer center, and we jumped at the chance to join its brain tumor center research group. We also realized that close connections between the labs and the clinics, and the tremendous sense of mission and cooperation, make MD Anderson a special place to work. But we had no idea that we would both be patients here as well, and experience that other, deeper, connection to the place and, more importantly, to the people that make MD Anderson what it is.” Read part of his series of blog.
When I asked him how he found out his answer is the same as that of most. “I felt a lump. Like many, I thought about it for a while and watched it. Some days my lump seemed bigger. Other days, it ached in a dull way or gave me a twinge of pain when I reached for something on a high shelf. I googled. Breast cancer isn’t supposed to hurt. It’s supposed to cause skin changes, but all looked normal. It must be something else, I told myself.”
He kept it from his wife for a while to spare her the agony after she had undergone the whole breast cancer treatment.
“I felt too awkward about it to even talk to Irene. I mean, here I am married to someone who has had breast cancer. I saw her go through the chemo, emptied her drains after surgery and was there when she rang the bell the day she completed radiation therapy. And now I was going to tell her that I think that maybe I have breast cancer, too? Seriously. My main concern was how silly I would feel when it turned out to be nothing.”
But when it didn’t go away after several weeks, he realized that he had to have it checked out. First, he had to find a primary care physician for a reality check.
He however told his wife that he was going for a regular checkup.
“ I felt bad for not sharing the real reason. But then again, I didn’t want to wake her fears and anxieties. And let me be honest, I didn’t want to look foolish.
The doctor he saw suggested that he gets a mammogram and a biopsy. That is when he decided to go to MD Anderson, and that was also the point when he told Irene.
He started with a mammogram, just the first of several experiences that he was never expecting to have.
“The awkwardness I felt was helped by the kind comment from the radiology technician that they do mammograms on guys all the time. A little later, I was lying with my right arm up, having an ultrasound of my right breast, and noticed that the technician was taking screenshots and measurements of a large lymph node in my armpit. I remember thinking to myself: interesting lymph nodes are never a good thing. I started getting worried, knowing from Irene’s experience that lymph nodes with cancer in them change your staging and prognosis.”
Dr. Wei Yang who was attending to him told him it was almost definitely cancer, just based on the mammogram and ultrasound. Cytology of the fine needle aspirate of the lymph node soon added to the suspicion, and his diagnosis was confirmed by the pathology reports a few days later.
“It was a shock, of course, but delivered by a trusted colleague in a very solicitous manner.”
Once the shock wore off, and he had a chance to consider it, he realized that he had not escaped feeling foolish. But he felt that this way for waiting too long before seeing a doctor, and not for the reasons he had feared.
“So, with my hindsight I encourage men to take the risk of having breast cancer seriously and to act on a suspicion early on. Far too often we wait too long, sometimes with very negative consequences.”
Pictures Courtesy, Bogler’s blog and Cancer foundation.