Ronnie Pace wants every man to know that breast cancer is not for women only—and he's living proof.
In 2013, I had a CT scan after seeing a couple of specialists about a dry cough. When I went back to the doctor’s office for the results, the cough was gone, so I figured there wasn’t much to say. I stood up to leave, and the doctor told me to sit down. “You don’t hear a doctor say this often,” he told me. “You have a lump in your right breast. We can watch it for six months.”
I looked at him like a deer in headlights. “What are we watching for?” That’s how naive I was. He told me it could be malignant. “Malignant—like cancer?”
“Yes, men get breast cancer,” he said. I had no clue. I had never heard of that in my life.
Only one man in 1,000 will get breast cancer in his lifetime. So I figured I had at least a 99% chance that it wasn’t cancer! Still, I didn’t want to wait six months. I knew I couldn’t be at peace knowing cancer was a possibility. I chatted with my primary care doctor, also a good friend, who said he wouldn’t be too concerned, but that if I was concerned we should do a biopsy. The biopsy came back malignant.
I live not far from Houston, so I went to MD Anderson [Cancer Center] for care. I figured since male breast cancer is rare, I wanted to be treated at a place that dealt with cancer all the time. They did genetic testing that showed I did not have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, which increase breast cancer risk.
My mother had breast cancer, but because I was negative for those mutations, the doctors thought my DNA just decided to go haywire. Another test showed I only had about an 8% chance of recurrence. But there aren’t many treatment options for men other than mastectomy, since we don’t have much breast tissue.
My wife was very concerned—like any wife would be, I think—but she was making nervous chatter when we talked to my surgeon. She blurted out, “Well, my husband’s talked about reconstruction, but he can’t decide if he wants to be a big B or a small C!” She never says stuff like that! We had a good laugh about that. We maintained that sense of levity; we knew we still needed to be looking at things from a positive perspective.
The mastectomy and recovery went well, and afterward I took tamoxifen, a type of hormone therapy that lowers the chance of breast cancer recurrence. (At least it does in women—I'm being treated with medicine that's only been tested in women). I didn’t need any radiation or chemotherapy, so I called myself “one and done” and thought that was the end of it.
But in August 2015, I had a chance to appear in a male breast cancer documentary. I was asked to take off my shirt and show what I looked like as a man with a mastectomy scar. I put my hand on the scar, and my fingertips touched a lump. I froze inside. I managed to keep my facial expression benign, but it went right to my head. Am I less afraid or more afraid, given that I know more than I did two years ago?
I went back to my care team, and I needed surgery again. It tore me up that I had to tell my wife, my daughters, and my grandkids that I had cancer again. They lived through it the first time with me, so it was gut-wrenching. Because the tamoxifen probably didn’t do the job for me, I did 33 days of radiation therapy. I finished radiation in December 2015.
I have been the recipient of a pretty life-changing diagnosis, but I’ve decided that I’m going to help other people because of it. I started volunteering on committees at MD Anderson to improve the patient experience, and I have written MD Anderson blogs about my story.
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Every three to six months I have a follow-up appointment or scan. I’m also taking another drug, a type of hormone-suppressing medication called an aromatase inhibitor. I’m tolerating the side effects; the alternative, not taking it, would increase my chances of recurrence.
About 460 men die each year from breast cancer in the U.S. because it’s detected late. Maybe they find a lump and ignore it because they don’t know they can get breast cancer. I didn’t know a man could get breast cancer. I was so totally unaware. I’ve talked to guys who waited years to discuss a lump because it made them feel like they were less of a man, it was a female disease. That machismo irritates me.
Sometimes you can’t be cured, but you can always be healed. There’s a difference. Sometimes it’s not going to be okay. All I’m looking for is to have another day to work, to be with my family, and to spread awareness.