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The scary specter of male breast cancer

Senior Airman Elisabeth Stone compresses a male patient's

Senior Airman Elisabeth Stone compresses a male patient's breast tissue during a baseline screening of mammogram at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Oct. 20, 2014. Credit: Alamy / PJF Military / Sheila deVera

In early 2017, I was working out on the lat pulldown machine at LA Fitness in Garden City when I felt a twinge on the left side of my chest.

I touched the spot, just to the left of my nipple, and felt something — a lump about the size of a quarter.

I don’t pay nearly enough attention to male health issues, let alone those that mostly afflict women, but the words breast cancer crossed my mind. However, as a healthy 6-foot, 61-year-old man, I was not overly concerned. I knew that most lumps are benign.

In any case, I made sure to mention it a couple weeks later at my annual physical in East Meadow, which had already been on my calendar. To my surprise, my doctor advised me to immediately get a mammogram and ultrasound.

Truthfully, I felt embarrassed pondering what the reactions would be to a man with breast cancer. The next day, while sitting in a waiting room at medical offices in Merrick, I started to mentally rehearse how I would break the news to everyone if the worst scenario came to pass. Would I be able to continue to work and provide for my family? Would I be around long enough to enjoy retirement and perhaps grandchildren? Before my thoughts could spiral further downward, I heard my name called for tests.

Many of you reading these words know the unpleasantness of having your breast sandwiched between two glass plates of a mammogram machine. I found that I did not appreciate the euphemism “discomfort,” which is used to describe the coldness and pressure of the glass. My technician did, however, use great care as she eased my breasts into position to get proper angles for several images.

Then, still in my gown, I was escorted to another area for my ultrasound. The technician bared my breast, applied gel and began moving the instrument around my torso as I blankly watched the monitor display what appeared to be cloud formations moving across the sky. When my tests were complete, the technician said the doctor would be in soon to discuss my results.

Moments later, the doctor walked in and said, “Everything is fine.” When I asked about the lump, she merely said, “Some people are lumpier than others.”

My breath whooshed out, and a ponderous weight melted away as tears welled up in my eyes. I realized that I would not have to face my two adult children and say the unthinkable words, “Daddy has breast cancer.”

I now know that, though it is very rare, men can succumb to breast cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, about 2,550 men will be diagnosed with breast cancer in America this year, and about 450 will die. The society says an American man has about one-hundredth of the chance of getting breast cancer than a woman. Fortunately, I was not one of these unlucky few.

I still cannot forget my anguished feelings during those tense days when I faced the reality of becoming a breast cancer footnote. And I have a new respect for the continued lifelong vigilance that women, and men, must endure in dealing with this terrible illness.

Reader Joseph Danenza lives in East Meadow.