By Anthony Ferreri
My breast cancer story begins with the discovery of a simple small cyst under my
armpit back in 1978. During a pre-employment physical for a new hospital
administrator job, the doctor told me he was sure the cyst was nothing, but I
should follow up with my doctor. Over the years that followed, with every routine
physical, I routinely brought the cyst to the physician’s attention, always being
told that ‘it was nothing”. Of course, all those years they were right.
In 2011, however, I noticed the cyst was growing and it became the size of a golf
ball. Because the cyst was under my armpit, it wasn’t noticeable to anyone but
me. By the following year, the cyst became sensitive to the touch. Physicians
continued to tell me “you could have it removed but you’ve had it for thirty years
and surgical removal would not be simple so just leave it alone”.
Around this same time, a friend and colleague had undergone a prophylactic
bilateral mastectomy because she was BRCA positive. Upon learning of my
cyst, she told me to “get it out, just get it out.” I’m grateful she did. Consequently,
I visited a general surgeon who said that it was “probably nothing but it doesn’t
belong there”. Soon after, he performed surgery to remove the cyst.
On February 20, 2013 I got a call on my cell from the surgeon telling me he
wanted to see me at 1PM the next afternoon. I knew then what he was going to
tell me. I knew I would hear the word “cancer.” If not cancer, he would have
simply told me by phone. The next day, I was advised it was indeed cancer but I
was surprised to learn that it was breast cancer. Even though the cyst was in my
armpit, it was breast tissue and therefore treated as breast cancer. It was
explained to me that, while the body is being formed in uterine, breast tissue can
locate in other areas of the body.
The general surgeon then referred me to a breast surgeon who would perform
additional surgery to “clean-up” the margins around the original incision. My care
would now be transferred to a medical oncologist and a breast cancer specialist.
All of this was a lot to deal with and a lot to be done. There’d be more surgery, then
chemotherapy and then radiation treatment. No way of keeping this quiet.
With my presence in the community, it wouldn’t be long before word got out.
How was I going to tell my family? My wife, also a breast cancer survivor, was having
shoulder replacement surgery. I knew my news would have to wait until she was
discharged from the hospital.
So, for ten days, I kept my breast cancer news to myself. I then decided to tell my
two grown children. I was advised not to be all gloom and doom when telling the
kids, so I decided to break the news over pizza at the house. My son, an avid
sneaker collector, was the last to come to the dinner table. To my surprise, he came
downstairs with a pink sneaker. He placed the sneaker on the director’s chair my daughter
had made for me that says “Grandpa” on the back. So here I am, about to tell my family that
I have cancer and my son just placed a pink sneaker on my chair. When I asked my son what
the significance of that particular shoe was he explained that Kevin Durant designed the sneaker in
honor of an aunt who passed away from lung cancer. Seizing the opportunity, I then said,
“Well, I have something to tell you.” Although upset by the news, they managed to laugh
through the tears when they realized that the special sneaker was on MY chair.
My biggest concern was telling my 90-year-old mom. Initially, I wasn’t going to tell her,
but one of my brothers said, “What are you going to tell her when you lose your hair?”
With my brothers present, I told my Mom. It was weeks into chemo and I was wearing
a wig to conceal my baldness. I thought that I had her fooled. I assured her that the cancer
was discovered early enough and that I’d be fine. Turns out she was never fooled for a moment.
We learned that day that she sensed it all along. She said that she knew that wasn’t my hair.
Now it was time to see the breast surgeon and as the President and CEO of
Staten Island University Hospital, I knew first-hand of the high quality care, I’d be
receiving at SIUH. Aside for a second opinion regarding the course of care, all the care
and direction I received came from this fine hospital. Our head of breast surgery at SIUH is
Dr. Cynara Coomer and she was recruited just a few years before my diagnosis. She and her husband,
a vascular surgeon, live on Staten Island, but both had worked in New York City hospitals.
Dr. Coomer was hired to head up our Comprehensive Breast Center.
Two weeks after learning I had breast cancer, Dr. Coomer cleaned up the
margins, removed the sentinel lymph node. The node had been infiltrated by the cancer.
I was diagnosed with stage 2A triple negative breast cancer. I don’t have a BRCA mutation.
Consequently, the surgery was followed by nine rounds of chemo, followed by radiation.
Since there were no signs the cancer had infiltrated my breast, I did not need a mastectomy.
Because of the chemo, I developed neuropathy in my feet. I was told that if I continued chemo,
I could possibly “end up wheelchair bound for rest of life”. My oncologist told me that in his opinion, I had received enough chemo and could stop the treatments. Fortunately, today, the neuropathy is
limited to just my toes instead of my entire feet.
While I was undergoing chemo treatments, SIUH was already in the midst of planning its annual gala.
A year earlier, it had been decided that this gala would benefit the hospital’s Comprehensive Breast Program and the building of our new Comprehensive Breast Center. The gala was on April 27, just three weeks after commencement of my chemotherapy. Very few people knew about my breast cancer diagnosis.
I had only missed five work days before the gala, but most people hadn’t seen me following the loss of weight and hair.
I was too sick to attend the entire event, but booked a room at the same hotel. I was asked to address
those gathered during the usual announcements and honors and joined the gala at around 9pm.
It was then, in front of 600 people that I announced almost defiantly “men get breast cancer too.”
The adrenaline was flowing, I looked awful, had lost lots of weight, wore a silly wig, but I realized I’d
be neglectful and wouldn’t be doing my job as the person most identified with healthcare in our community,
if I didn’t go public with my diagnosis. A male CEO raising money for a breast center who ironically had breast cancer! How could I pass up the opportunity to publicize the importance of male breast cancer awareness? Since then, I’ve done television and newspaper stories bringing the word forward.
Kiss’ Peter Criss and I addressed a group at St. John’s University, speaking about our experiences as breast cancer survivors.
There are 500,000 people residing in Staten Island, but yet it behaves like a small town.
We treat our family, neighbors and friends as 85% of our residents stay on the island for medical treatment.
We take care of each other. What I did, anyone in my position would do. I’m so grateful for my support system. My younger brother was with me for every single treatment. My older brother met us at the house 6:30AM before each treatment to see us off. My daughter shopped for any and all natural treatments for nausea.
My son, wife, family, colleagues, my assistant (another survivor) and dearest friends
supported me throughout. SIUH’s Director of Breast Imaging, Dr. Carolyn Raia,
followed me very closely. Not surprisingly, as she routinely sits with her patients and
guides them through the process even after her diagnostic work is done.
My thanks to my nurse navigator and all the navigators, chemo nurses, radiation therapists,
radiation and medical oncologists, pharmacist and all who provided care.
I have a duty and continue to bring awareness of male breast cancer whenever possible.
The number of men being treated for breast cancer at SIUH has gone up and every time
I get a call about another male breast cancer diagnosis I feel perhaps sharing my experience
made some small difference. Guys, don’t ignore the signs, don’t be embarrassed,
men get breast cancer too. The mortality rate is high in men because too often physicians ignore
symptoms in men they would normally be alarmed by in women.
Right now, I’m not on any cancer medications, go for check ups every few months,
had my MRI last month and pay attention to my health.