Eric Pieszala
September, 2018

My Fight with Breast Cancer

The first time I’ve ever heard of men getting breast cancer was when I was in elementary Catholic school. I remember when Monsignor Kenneth Menge came out that he had it and my mom was shocked because we thought men couldn’t get it, but then we knew. I remember my mom having a women’s breast self-examination card on the shower for a while at home. Once in a blue moon, she would tell us to check ourselves and look for lumps. She was more concerned with us checking moles and other bumps to watch for cancer. We never had any cancer scares in the family before, so we looked out but we weren’t too concerned. I also remember when my mom found out she had a basal cell on her nose and had that removed. They put her on the prayer list at church, but she didn’t want the “C” label put on her because there were other people that had far worse cancer scares then a basal cell. The most I was concerned with getting was rheumatoid arthritis. Both my father and grandmother must do self-injections for Enbrel to help with it. I was healthy up until this year.

All my life I’ve been a bit overweight and when I was a teenager I developed “man boobs.” Of course some jokes from people came with it, but naturally I was used to having them. I’ve also had cystic acne as well. So every once in a while I would find a bump here or there, it would grow, maybe cause some pain, but eventually disappear. I have one at the base of my spine that is self-draining, and would sometimes need antibiotics to help clear it, but it would disappear all together. Well, to no surprise, last fall I developed a lump in my left breast. I thought it was just another cystic acne forming so I didn’t worry. My wife, on the other hand, said to call the doctor. I said we’ll just wait a bit and see what happens. Well for the remainder of the year she pushed and I ignored.

In the spring of 2018, my wife and I started going through MAP classes to foster and adopt. One of the requirements for the class is to get a physical. Perfect right? My wife called and made the appointment and said he needs a physical but he has a lump in his chest that needs to be looked at. Well the doctor had me come in towards the end of the day to more focus on the lump and said it has to be a cyst and its more than likely not cancer because of its feel. She told me to go get an ultrasound and come back another day for the physical with the ultrasound reports to figure out what is there. I replied, “Can’t I just get antibiotics to clear it up?” She said no it would have to be surgically cleaned out. After a couple weeks I finally went in for the ultrasound. When I went in, the receptionists sounded frightened when they heard a male was coming in for an ultrasound on their breast. During the ultrasound, the tech was surprised by what she was picking up. She said it definitely wasn’t fluidic, but it was showing up as fleshy. She also called the doctor watching it and was making comments to him. I, on the other hand, asked if it could be hard packed pus that was showing up as solid. She then said she was done and my doctor would be calling. I still walked out of there with my mind made up that it definitely wasn’t cancer.

My doctor then called back and told me I needed to get a biopsy done at a medical imaging center. I was still on the “not concerned” train and getting on the “doctor money maker” train. I was getting tired of going from doctor to doctor over a stupid cyst that I could just take antibiotics for and get rid of it. And now I had to go in for a stupid core needle biopsy (I absolutely hate needles) for a cyst. Well the imaging center called me before I called them and set up the appointment. After waiting for what seemed like forever, they forgot about me. But in a way it was good. When the radiologist observing all the tests saw that a male was coming in for a biopsy in a breast, he ordered all his own tests done from his people to make sure they were done right. When they brought me in back to do the initial paperwork, they had me fill out a few forms and then they had me fill out the cancer screening form just incase. So they brought me in back and did a mammogram first and then another ultrasound. While laying on the ultrasound table, I actually had the nerve to complain about going through all this and why my doctor just couldn’t give me antibiotics to get rid of it. The tech just looked at me and said it’s not a cyst so stop it. That’s when I started being a little more concerned, like what is going on.

When both tests were finished, another nurse came in and started asking me about my cancer history. As they kept asking if I had any knowledge to any cancer in my family, all I could tell them was my mom’s basal cell. As they were walking me to the radiologist’s office, we passed by one of the tech’s stations and there was a cancer genetic DNA testing kit opened, so I told the nurse I’m guessing that’s for me. She said I needed to see the radiologist first. So the radiologist told me I needed to come back for the biopsy in a couple days, but he was 90% sure that when he did it, the results would be positive for breast cancer. So then they brought me into a quiet room and had me do the DNA test. Honestly that was the scariest couple minutes of my life because in the silence all I could think of was what the hell was going on? How has this happened to me? And what stage and how bad is it? After completing the DNA test, I walked out to the waiting room where Jamie was and she was still mad about the long wait. I didn’t tell her until we got into the car. Then we both broke down.

Before all this Jamie and I were focused on celebrating five years of marriage. We were also looking forward to completing what we needed for our foster classes, getting past the woes of infertility problems, and finally having kids in the house. We also were just looking at getting away for the weekend to my in-laws, being out in the country, even camping on their property for the weekend. Not thinking about cancer. So that Thursday I went in for the biopsy. It hurt like hell with them clipping off the lump and even giving me the lidocaine for going for the lymph node, but they got what the needed. The radiologist called me and my wife into his office and said he wouldn’t have the results until Monday but he was hoping the lymph node would come back negative because of all the fatty tissue he saw around it with the ultrasound.

So the next questions: what is the next step? Where do I go from here? I asked the radiologist those questions and his reply was, “Well haven’t you talked to a breast surgeon?” In my mind, I was thinking I have an allergist, a primary, a chiropractor, and now a sleep apnea specialist, but I’ve never thought I need a breast surgeon. In our area, we have a huge cancer hospital, Roswell Park, and if you have cancer go there. So I asked if that’s where I should go. He said he knew someone that would be better for my case, Dr. Meeghan Lautner. So that Friday, my wife and I headed out to spend the weekend at her parents and get away from all this. Well, Friday afternoon, the radiologist called. The lump turned out to be a tumor (3cm) and they also gave it the term invasive because the one lymph node was positive for cancer. From what he told me, there are 15 to 20 lymph nodes in the armpit area and on a good day they can only pick up one or two with the ultra sound. I thought great, how many more in there are cancerous since they only saw the one. And it was worse because he couldn’t give us a stage, that was more the surgeon’s job. So the rest of the weekend all we could think was how bad was this. And we did one of the worst things in the situation: Google. Now I had to tell my mom the news. She already took it hard about it possibly being cancer, but now we know its in the lymph nodes. And her friend is a radiologist as well, so they were both thinking the worst.

At this point we really needed some good news…some support…a light in the darkness. We have our faith and we trust in God that He would get us through, but what about people who have gone through it our are fighting it as well? So we turned to Facebook in search of groups. We found the MBCC, the Male Breast Cancer Coalition. As soon as I liked the page and we messaged them, Peggy Miller called right away and encouraged us. And after hearing Bret’s story, and other survivors, we were really encouraged, we knew we could get through this battle. It was amazing to be able to talk to other men and hear what they’ve been through and the many different treatments they have for the situations and to never be afraid to ask your doctor. I’ve also learned that you need to be your own doctor and if you don’t feel right about something, ask them.

So I met with my breast surgeon a week later and it was decided to a double mastectomy because they had no rhyme or reason why I had the cancer in the first place. Eventually the DNA testing came back negative and so they said removing the right breast as well would be the best to bring recurrence into the single digits. Around the same time I had a PET scan done and the results came back my cancer hadn’t spread anywhere else. They also said it was Stage 2 because it was in the one lymph node, but it could be stage 3 after the surgery.

The worst part of the whole journey was for the surgery. I had two weeks between my last appointment with my surgeon before the surgery. I had my final appointment with my primary physician to clear me for the surgery. Then it was just waiting to go to the hospital. Wondering how everything is going to go down, will there be any complications, will they be able to get all the cancer, and what will the pathology report say in the end? Finally the day came, and I cried the hardest when they wheeled me away from my wife to the holding area to prep me. The surgery was delayed for a couple hours so they let my wife come back to see me. Then they finally took me to the OR. Recovery was hard partially being that my body doesn’t do well with anesthesia, but my surgeon said she got everything and she also tried to measure and make the incisions as even as can be because I wasn’t having any reconstruction done. The surgery ended up being 4.5 hours. So the following day they released me from the hospital.

Recovering at home was rough. Being a guy, there were so many things I wanted to take care of but I couldn’t. The hardest part was dealing with the drainage tubes. I had to sleep in a recliner, shower very carefully, and have my wife milk and empty them. Thankfully my wife worked in a nursing home so she could stomach it a bit.

But the worst part for her was emotionally. When we took off the dressings for the first time, and even seeing me with the tubes, she would tear up and start to cry. It was hard for her to see me without nipples and the two big scars across my chest. And also the man boobs, that she became used to, were gone. As I’m writing this, the drainage tubes are gone, but the scars will always be there. My surgeon was worried how I would feel, but to me they are a story, a testimony. I look at them as battle wounds. A battle I fought and survived, and many men have valiantly fought and lost, but one that will always be remembered. And as I told Peggy Miller, I want to be a voice for male breast cancer. God got me through this and now I want to warn others.

The thing that got me is I had male breast cancer. It’s a disease that dominates women but 1 in every 100 breast cancer cases are men. In 2018, they expect 2500 men to be diagnosed. Even with those statistics, so many men still believe that men cannot get breast cancer. I want to be a voice to men to check, go to your doctors, and make sure they get it in time! MEN: CHECK YOUR BOOBIES!