Episode 40: Men get breast cancer too with Bill Harris

by | Oct 28, 2021 | Podcasts | 0 comments

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When we think about breast cancer, we think it is just a women’s disease. But it couldn’t be further from the truth. Men get breast cancer too and Bill Harris helps us understand the implications for men.

On finding it yourself.

Most people do not do self-breast exams. Bill didn’t either. He found some blood on his t-shirt, originally thinking it was from his dog (who had recently had surgery). When the stain came back a second time, it made him think again. Bill started doing research and realized the only possible diagnosis is breast cancer.

Bill told me about his experience at the mammography center where the technician couldn’t quite figure out how to do his imaging. And he told me about how he chose his surgeon who had only done eleven surgeries on men (for breast cancer removal). Bill lives in a really big city, not small-town America, which makes that fact even more sobering. If he did live in a small town he may have had a surgeon with no experience operating on men.

“Men have a five-time higher mortality rate than women do with the same diagnosis.”

Bill Harris

Men are 1% of diagnosed each year.

Most people think breast cancer is just for women. A woman’s disease. That one percent statistic represents about 2,800 men across the country. Most of them don’t know it’s breast cancer and won’t catch it early.

That is why Bill has devoted his time, effort, and energy in educating the world and raising awareness for male breast cancer.

And although men face somewhat different issues with body image, they do still get reconstruction (if that’s the choice that’s right for them).

“The problem, is that most people don’t know that it’s a problem. That men can get it too. And most physicians never see it in their practice.”

Bill Harris

Know your history.

Certain genetic mutations can greatly increase your chances of developing cancer. Cancer gene mutations can be passed on by the father or the mother. Finding you have a BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 mutation can change how you choose to address the cancer question.

About 80% of people with a BRCA mutation will develop cancer over their lifetime. Some people choose to do profilactic surgeries, while others choose a wait-and-see approach. There is not right or wrong answer, it depends on what is right for each person. Knowing your history gives you options, though it you still may find it is difficult to make that decision.

So many things to consider.

One of the things that is impacted with a breast cancer diagnosis is mental, emotional, and self-image issues. Both men and women suffer from these collective issues, but it also depends how one approaches the topic.

For some, body image is very important and will dictate treatment options, for others it isn’t so important. Sometimes age is a factor, or relationship status, but sometimes it’s not. It’s just personal preference.

Another issue is parenthood. Whether you are seeking to have children or your family is established can also play a big part in how you approach treatment options.

The underlying factor is really the diagnosis. Regardless of your sexual orientation, we are all created with the same capacity for emotions, and nothing cuts to the core like an existential crisis.

Where Bill found humor.

Even though breast cancer sucks in so many ways, there are many humorous moments. Bill told me about the time in the mammography center where they gave him a pink paper robe and pink slippers to wear for his exam and about how after the surgery he stayed on the hospital women’s surgery recovery floor with all the other breast cancer patients and had to alert all the patients that “a man was going to be walking around.” He also mentioned that he’s a big fan of comedy – comedians, books written by comedians, comedy shows, funny movies, anything that will make him laugh.

“Do something everyday that makes you laugh. It says this illness is not all-consuming.”

Bill Harris

Here are some of my favorite moments from this episode:

  • 2:56 Bill’s cancer story.
  • 10:56 Finding the right breast surgeon.
  • 18:26 Staying on the women’s reproductive surgery floor.
  • 20:27 Learning your family history.
  • 22:03 It’s not recognized early enough because men don’t go to the doctor.
  • 24:47 Men get breast cancer too.
  • 27:00 Getting genetic testing as a man.
  • 32:38 Hormonal linkage of breast cancer in men.
  • 35:57 Raising awareness, education, and outcome.
  • 36:45 Mental and emotional health and self-image issues for men and women.
  • 44:00 The connection to parenthood.
  • 47:35 Surveillance when you’re at higher risk.
  • 51:15 Identifiying as a breast cancer educator and advocate.
  • 1:01:34 Finding comfort in spriritual rituals.
  • 1:05:22 Laughter is the best medicine.
  • 1:09:57 Men’s breast cancer isn’t new, it hasn’t been well-diagnosed.
  • 1:13:10 Why being inclusive is so important.

Links mentioned in this episode:

Men Get Breast Cancer Too with Bill Harris

Bill Harris is a husband to Karen, a father to Eric, a push-over for two dogs, an avid reader, politically aware, dog shelter volunteer trainer for 11 years, a pretty good cook, gadget freak, packrat, amateur IT guy, two-time EMMY Award-winning editor, and has shown no evidence of disease nine years after his mastectomy.

After college, Bill began a career in journalism, as a photographer, editor, and producer. At ABC News, Bill was assigned as Peter Jenningsí editor and Senior Editor on World News Tonight after being the original editor on 20/20, Nightline, Primetime Live, and many documentaries. He has been awarded two National EMMY awards for his editing and production work on the 1988 Olympic Winter Games at Calgary.

Bill has been very active as a mentor, advocate, lecturer, and all-around cheerleader for male breast cancer patients, survivors, and their families. His journey has been published online and in print, and he can be heard on several podcasts and videos with the goal of educating everyone about this disease.

Bill fulfilled one of his dreams by being a member of the first adult team to attend US Space Camp, at the Marshall Space Flight Center in 1985, and has a few dreams yet to be realized. Bill will be 70 this July.

A new episode is released every second and fourth Thursday of each month.

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