For the past two and a half years, my dad has been living with stage 4 male breast cancer. Stage 4 breast cancer, also known as metastatic breast cancer, occurs when the cancer spreads from the breast tissue to other parts of the body (bones, other organs, etc.) There is no cure for metastatic breast cancer; if you know someone who has passed away from breast cancer, it’s because their cancer metastasized. About 30% of breast cancer patients will become metastatic, while 6-10% are diagnosed initially. (If you’re interested in learning more, this is a great video that explains metastatic breast cancer.) My dad was one of the people that were initially diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. His cancer has moved from his breast tissue to his middle back, lower back, shoulders, arms, hips, and skull. He’s been through chemotherapy once and radiation twice. On average, he takes about six medications a day.
Even though my dad has been living with this illness for the better part of three years, I still feel a little weird talking about it. It actually kind of scares me. I’m afraid people will make fun of my dad for having breast cancer, as it’s a disease far more associated with women than men, and not totally without reason: according to breastcancer.org, it’s estimated that 231,840 cases of invasive breast cancer will occur in women in 2015, while for men it’s 2,350. I’m afraid some people won’t even believe me. I’m afraid that people will think I’m just talking about it for sympathy or attention, or that people won’t want to talk about it because, frankly, it’s really sad. I think my dad has always felt a little weird talking about it too, for a while very few people actually knew that he even had cancer.
It’s also a little hard to talk about because I recognize how fortunate my family is, even in this situation. My dad has always had access to great medical care, a job that has been very cooperative when he needs to take sick days or longer term leaves of absences, and has a large and loving family who takes care of him every day and would do anything for him, especially my mom. (Mom, if you’re reading this, you’re awesome. I love you.) My dad’s cancer isn’t genetic, meaning my sisters, brother, and I are not at a high risk of developing breast cancer as well.
I want to point out that my father is so much more than his disease; he’s an incredibly hard worker, generous father to five kids, a college student getting his undergraduate degree this year (the same year as me!), a zombie-enthusiast, air guitar aficionado, and overall giant goofball. He tells really bad jokes, helps me do my taxes, takes naps with our cat sleeping on his lap, gets terrible road rage, loves heavy metal music, and plays a ton of videogames. (Try beating him at Mario Kart when he’s playing Boswer, I dare you.)
Despite my hesitations, I’ve decided to write this article. The reason I wanted to talk about my dad and his cancer, more specifically his stage 4 breast cancer, is because it’s breast cancer awareness month and as far as I know, there are very few mainstream media outlets talking about metastatic breast cancer. As I said before, 30% of breast cancer patients will become metastatic, but only about 2-7% of breast cancer funding goes to metastatic research. Almost 40,000 people a year will die from metastatic breast cancer, but most of the mainstream talk about breast cancer is about prevention. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to devalue the important of preventing breast cancer, but only talking about prevention doesn’t help or support the people who are currently living with breast cancer that they cannot cure.
For the past three Octobers since my father has been diagnosed, I’ve seen the pretty pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness, and honestly, I’ve felt a little jaded. And no, it’s not because the ribbon is pink and pink is a “female” color. It’s because there are people making very serious profits off of breast cancer awareness (the founder of Susan G. Komen Foundation, for example, makes over half a million dollars every year). It’s because there are stories of people with metastatic breast cancer who were told not to talk about their experiences and the nature of their diagnosis so they don’t scare others diagnosed with the disease. It’s because metastatic breast cancer is frightening and sad to talk about, so my father and the thousands of other people with his kind of breast cancer are buried and ignored under a sea of pink as a result.
I want to reiterate again that I am not saying that we shouldn’t be talking about awareness and prevention, or that we shouldn’t be providing lots of love and support for the men and women who are diagnosed with the earlier stages of breast cancer; we absolutely should be. I’m not saying that the pretty pink ribbons have to go away, or that people who are diagnosed stage 4 shouldn’t be hopeful about their disease and their treatment. What I am saying is that the way we talk about breast cancer and where we invest donations needs to be more balanced. My dad has recently become very vocal about his experience, the reason being he wants to raise more awareness about his condition, and I thought I should follow along in his footsteps. It you are considering donating to breast cancer research this month, or just learning more about stage 4 breast cancer, please consider checking out metavivor.org, a group that funds research for this kind of cancer specifically, as well as raises awareness and provides support for those living with the illness.
Finally, I have to admit that there is another slightly more selfish reason for writing this article. I know that there are a lot of people out there who are in similar and even more unfortunate situations that my family is in right now, and I know that sometimes when we talk about cancer, we talk about people as if they’re nothing more than patients and statistics. I wanted to share my dad’s story, but I also wanted to just show people a little bit more of who he is as a person. I’m not going to sugarcoat it and say that my dad has remained positive throughout his whole treatment, because he hasn’t, or that there aren’t days and weeks where things are really hard and scary, because there are, and that this hasn’t changed a lot of aspects of mine and my family’s lives, because it has. What I can say is that even through his illness, my dad has remained the kind of person he always has been: weird, outgoing, loving, stubborn, grumpy, and incredibly strong. Here are a few pictures from some of my favorite, silly moments with him since he’s been diagnosed.
I love you, dad. Even at your angriest, saddest, or strangest moments, you are an absolute inspiration and I’m very lucky to call you my father. I’m right here with you and I always will be.
Photos: 1 (all other photos courtesy of the author and her family)