The scar on the left side of my chest is listed as a radical mastectomy in my medical records from 96th Evacuation Hospital, DaNang RVN, South Vietnam, June 4, 1971; 47 years, 4 month and 18 days as of this writing. Minutes do not count because they lost me on the operating table, I was told. Then again, I already knew that because I saw it as it was happening.
It began about 12 months prior to the surgery when I felt a hardening under my nipple and then my nipple started discharging puss mixed with blood. I went to the infirmary on Husky Compound, Xuan Loc, RVN and a medic there told me it was probably just hormones going wild at my young age of 19. I said okie dokie and went back to work.
I worked as a Combat MP patrolman and as the months passed by the weight of my fatigues against my left breast kept irritating it and more leakage appeared. I extended my tour and transferred to DaNang, RVN to a MP Joint Customs Unit. After being there two months, I went to the 96th Evacuation Hospital to have them check my breast out. The Doctor said I had a tumor.
I said I kinda realized that because of the pain it has been causing me for the last year or so. He said he needed to go in and remove it and he hoped that it would be benign. I did not understand exactly what he was saying other than go in and remove the tumor. I said yes, take it out! So, on the morning of June 4, 1971, they put me on a gurney and wheeled me into an operating room where they put me under telling me to count backwards from 100. I think I made it to 94.
I remember smiling and feeling a slight breeze that I thought to be The Lord’s breath flowing across my cheek. The room was a pale baby blue in color, very calming. I felt no pain whatsoever. All I remember, I felt nothing, but happiness. I was looking down from the corner of the ceiling seeing six people around an operating table working on someone. The doctor said something to a nurse and she turned and walked away, when she did, I was able to see the patient they were working on was me.
I woke up in pain and extremely uncomfortable! I had hoses up my nose and still had needles in my arm. I asked the nurse what was going on and why were the hoses up my nose? She said the doctor would be in to talk to me soon. The doctor came in about 10 minutes later and asked how I was doing? I told him, very uncomfortable! And why did I have hoses up my nose? He stated when patients have been through this type of surgery, they must use oxygen during recovery.
This is when he told me they had experienced complications during the surgery. And that’s when I told him I knew that because I saw them working on me from the corner of the room. He looked at me for a bit, said, well your breathing’s okay now so I’ll send the nurse back in to remove the hoses. The doctor said, whatever the mass was, he believed it is benign.
The nurse came in, took the hoses from my nose. I asked her if she knew what had happened and she said yes but it was in a whisper. She whispered this surgery happens more than you know. But, the anesthesiologist gave you a bit too much, that’s what sent you over. I told her it was beautiful. She kissed me on the forehead and said, glad you are back.
But, the stigma of breast cancer started in that hospital. The bed they placed me in was in a room with combat wounded soldiers missing legs, missing arms and other severe injuries. There I was with a bandaged chest that had been cut down to the rib cage on the left side. And the bandage was as heavy as a bowling ball, it seemed. When the nurse came to take the bandage off two days later, she started peeling away the layers of gauze away. When she got down to the last few pieces where you could see the blood, my skin started peeling away with the gauze. I looked at her and asked, is that supposed to do that. It took her for a start, I chuckled and she put a hand to her mouth and said, dear no! She re-bandaged me, they kept me for another 16 days then sent me back to work.
Months later I returned to the U.S. and no one ever saw me without a shirt or t-shirt on. If anyone did and they asked me what happened all I had to say was Vietnam and that would explain it enough and nothing else would be said. Or someone took a knife to me and sliced me open. When they would ask what happened then? Easy answer, I died. Silence for a minute, then I would laugh. That was my way of dealing with it. I didn’t begin dealing with what had happened until the 90’s. A man just didn’t get a woman’s disease, that’s all.
In 1972, I filed a claim with the VA in Dallas, Texas, but needed to relocate to Washington for work.
In 1973, I ended up in the Vancouver VA Medical Center, Washington, in a straight jacket and padded room due to PTSD. While all of this was happening the VA in Dallas sent me a letter but I had missed it and subsequently missed their appointment, so they denied my claim. I didn’t realize what had happened for about three years. When I finally did, I started writing letters to the VA rep explaining my situation, but it fell on deaf ears and denials. Finally, in 1991, everything caught up with me. Relocating to Grand Terrace, CA. The VA at Loma Linda called me for an appointment for a mammogram check-up. I laughed and said, well about time, the radical mastectomy was done in 1971 in Vietnam. The lady making the appointment said, your voice is a bit deep for a woman. I laughed and said be- cause I am a man. All she could say was oh!
When I went in for the appointment, the mammogram tech questioned as to how to do a mammogram on a man. I suggested since they took everything down to the ribs, why not just x-ray that area, there is nothing to squish at this point. So that is what he did. That same day a doctor examined me, looked at my medical records and asked me, was it malignant? I looked at him with the strangest look. At that point he realized what he had said! He chuckled and said, of course not or you wouldn’t be here. I haven’t been back for a mammogram since. That was 1991, this is 2018 and the last denial I received from the VA they claimed my radical mastectomy was elective surgery because I told the doctor I wanted him to remove the tumor from my body.
My wife had a bi-lateral mastectomy in 2003 and underwent chemo treatment for eight months and has now been cancer free for 15 years. People who know our circumstances understand that we are both truly blessed. I am proud to have found my Brothers of the Male Breast Cancer Coalition. It is still hard for men to tell their stories of their journey and how they have come to understand it and live with it. It is important for young boys and men to understand that it is not something to be ashamed off. It is part of life and something that has to be dealt with in a timely manner because breast cancer is definitely a killer of men and women!
I really and truly wish there had been an organization such as this available during my journey dealing with breast cancer.