By Brittany Collins
“Men don’t get breast cancer,” a practitioner told my father, who had concerning symptoms and a sister who carries a BRCA-2 mutation. “You shouldn’t worry.”
This was how my family’s cancer journey began. Years prior, my paternal grandmother passed away from the disease, and my aunt had recently completed treatments for her breast cancer, which prompted my father’s inquiry. It was not until my father conferred with specialists at Dana-Farber’s Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers that his malignancy was discovered — the product of a genetic lottery that ended his life at the age of 47.
These are the dangers of misinformation.
I was 14 years old when my father, who had a BRCA-2 mutation, passed away — a time when oxygen tanks and wheelchairs filled our home. My mother was going through her own chemotherapy at the time; her breast cancer diagnosis, which did not have a genetic component, struck our home six months before the passing of my dad. High school sweethearts, my parents held hands amidst the tumult of treatment — embodying the promise of “for better or for worse” while also negotiating the roles of patient and caregiver. It is impossible to capture the gentle strength of such a love.
Though less common than female breast cancer, male breast cancer is not as rare as we might imagine. One percent of breast cancer cases occurs in men each year, which equates to nearly 2,500 men in the United States. The “one percent” is not so small that it doesn’t need attention.
Are you a man whose mother, aunt, sister, or grandmother had breast or ovarian cancer? Are you a woman with breast or ovarian cancer and, if so, have you pursued genetic counseling or testing; have you shared those results with the men in your life—brothers, fathers, sons?
During the summer after my freshman year of college, a Dana-Farber genetic counselor helped to bring alive a phrase that my father wrote in his journals: “Knowledge is power.” The decision to pursue genetic testing was, for me, an act of empowerment. Should I test positive, the gift of action awaited me: increased and early screening, perhaps preventative surgery. I would have had the chance to intervene, to re-write the narrative in which my father found himself trapped. The “unknown” seemed scarier than the potential for such preparations.
I inherited many things from my father such as his green eyes and his patience. I do not carry his BRCA-2 mutation; instead, I carry an awareness of self-care, healthful habits, and advocacy. Breast cancer is not what I choose to remember about my dad. Instead, I remember Jeffrey Collins as a shining symbol of fatherhood. I see my father in bookshelves and sunsets. I hear his voice when I am most afraid. It is not the milestones missed that break my heart: he will never walk me down the aisle at my wedding, he did not see me graduate from high school. Instead, it is the everyday void. I cannot call my dad for advice or laugh with him over pizza. Male breast cancer took this from us. It need not take this from you.
To seek knowledge, communicate concern, and educate men about their risks is to save other families from the pain that mine endured—to facilitate more “happy endings,” like that of my mother, a six-year survivor. “Carpe Diem,” my father wrote at the bottom of notes and emails. To seize this day, and the potential to make a difference, we must spread the word that men do “really get breast cancer.”