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Male Breast Cancer Survivor Shares his Story Hoping to Alleviate Stigma
Two-time cancer survivor Jacob Bryson urges men to remain vigilant about their health
When Jacob Bryson’s wife Rebecca felt a lump on his peck seven years ago, his doctor told him it was a benign cyst. At the time the 60-year-old father of two and grandfather decided to play it safe and have it removed. However, when his pathology results came back they showed the lump was malignant. He learned he was one of the “one in every 1,000” men diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.
“It felt like my belly had fallen out,” Bryson said recalling his reaction to the diagnosis. “Breast cancer surprised me. I had no idea a man could develop breast cancer.”
Bryson had faced cancer before. In 2000 he was diagnosed and successfully treated for testicular cancer. But unlike testicular cancer, which is specific to men, breast cancer is often seen as a woman’s disease. As a man with breast cancer, Bryson says he often felt isolated, embarrassed and frustrated.
“People were pretty cruel,” Bryson, 67, told BCRF in a recent interview remembering some of the insensitive marks made during his treatment. An old boss joked before his double mastectomy that he was getting breast implants, another told him “you didn’t need that nipple anyway.” This included survivor groups who turned him away because of his gender.
“Basically I felt like I was alone,” Bryson said. To that end, he kept his diagnosis, treatment and recovery private. It took him two years until he felt comfortable going outside without his shirt on – and longer before he decided to share his story publicly with the hope it would encourage more men to learn about the disease.
“I want people to be educated, understand the risk and mitigate the risks,” he said.
He began to share his story anecdotally within his community. He says some men would approach him, voicing concern over lumps they felt on their chests. Each time he would encourage them to speak with their doctors and if necessary, have the lumps removed and biopsied.
“Men don’t understand their risk and women don’t understand the risk associated with their men. That’s unacceptable,” Bryson said.
On a routine errand filling his car with gas, he happened to notice the BCRF logo on a bottle of FW1 Waterless Wash and Wax. With the purchase of each can, $0.50 is donated to BCRF. Having never heard of the organization, he decided to visit the website and subsequently contacted BCRF to share his story.
“In many ways women are defined by their breasts. When they lose them, identity issues follow. Men have nowhere near the same breast cancer risk or physical changes, I get that,” Bryson said. “But I had the disease too. Someone needs to listen.”
Bryson has a strong family history of breast cancer. He watched his own father die of liver cancer and his daughter was also successfully treated for breast cancer last year. While his insurance would not cover the cost of genetic testing, BCRF introduced him to grantee, Dr. Mary-Claire King and he and his daughter have since been accepted into one of the largest studies on hereditary breast cancer at the University of Washington in Seattle – not far from Bryson’s home in Tumwater, Washington.
He hopes his participation will lead to breakthroughs in detecting and preventing male breast cancer – a diagnosis with approximately 2,350 new cases diagnosed this year, according to the American Cancer Society.
“Without research into the nature of cancer, my tumor might not ever have showed up,” Bryson said. “We’ve made huge strides forward. I don’t think we can eradicate cancer altogether, but research will help us be prepared.”
As a father who has watched his own daughter undergo breast cancer treatment, Bryson remains committed to show the many faces affected by the disease.
“Fathers, like every other man, need to be vigilant because it is not just a woman’s disease,” Bryson urged. “It’s important to know your family history, if not for yourself then for your children and grandchildren.”