Published on June 30, 2020
I’m a Man and I Have Metastatic Breast Cancer
Michael Kovarik describes his journey with male breast cancer as one of many ups and downs – fear, rage, hope, gratitude and strength.
But he can’t forget in January 2007 hearing the surgeon tell him that the lump removed from his chest was not a cyst. He had early-stage breast cancer. He had never heard of a man with breast cancer. Most people haven’t; breast cancer in men makes up less than 1% of diagnoses.
In 2010, Kovarik had a chest wall recurrence. In 2015, he was told he was metastatic. He saw death.
Now 63 and stable, Kovarik, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Greenwich, New York, with his partner, copes with his diagnosis through the support of family, friends and doctors.
Patient Power spoke to Kovarik about his breast cancer diagnosis, the stigma of male breast cancer and his message of hope for men newly diagnosed.
How was your cancer discovered? And what were your thoughts and feelings at the time?
I noticed a lump in my left breast tissue near my nipple, and I just was so afraid of dealing with it. I went to my general practitioner for my annual physical and he was like, ‘You know Michael I think this is really a cyst.’ He suggested his friend who is a surgeon look at it, but I said, ‘Let’s wait and see what happens.’
A month or two afterward, I noticed my left nipple inverted. At that point, I realized I had to face the fear. I called my doctor and he put me in touch with the surgeon. About a week after the lump was removed, I remember going into the surgeon’s office and hearing his first words, ‘Michael I wish I had better news.’ And I remember just sitting there and going, ‘Oh sh&*.’ I just kind of shut him out. All I could hear was the voice inside my head going ‘Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Women get breast cancer.’ I had never heard of a man getting breast cancer. I was in shock.
How did you discover the cancer had spread?
In 2014, I started getting a recurrent cough. Every year I go for an endoscopic ultrasound because I have the BRCA2 gene. My dad passed away from pancreatic cancer. When I woke up, I had a feeling that something was wrong, and the doctor said that he had observed an abnormal lymph node in my chest cavity and took a biopsy. I had a PET scan and found out the cancer had spread to my lungs, some of my bones, my left hip, a couple of left ribs and a couple of lymph nodes around my waist.
How did you cope with the news?
The first word in my head was ‘death.’ At the beginning, I could be sitting in the living room, and I could sense my body going to that dark, fearful place. I would go upstairs to my bedroom and close the door and sit on the edge of the bed and just kind of breathe and feel it coming. The fear and the anger about what was transpiring. All of a sudden I would start pounding my bed and screaming at the top of my lungs, ‘I don’t want this. Take it back.’ I would be cursing God, cursing the universe and I would just pound the bed until I was just exhausted. And then I would just kind of lay there, just listen to my breathing, getting myself together. So even still now, when those moments kind of come, I just kind of sit and meditate and listen to my breath, and I really just kind of talk to myself. ‘I don’t want to be afraid. I just want to live.’ And that really, really helps me.
How do we address the stigma associated with male breast cancer?
Men who are dealing with it may not be comfortable being out there. But when you make yourself visible, that support, those services are only going to blossom and grow. I remember a couple of years ago at a conference, the oncologist, she was wonderful, but her focus was on women. I told her that I was living with stage IV metastatic breast cancer and asked, ‘Are men included in what is being presented?’ She said there are some. I said, ‘How do we get it out there that this is about women and men?’ She started getting a little defensive. I talked about the importance of using the pronouns he/she/they. But men have a responsibility to make themselves visible, as uncomfortable as it may be because once they make themselves visible they are going to realize it’s a sh&*ty group to be a part of, but the people are absolutely amazing.
What words of hope would you share with a man who has been recently diagnosed with breast cancer?
That you are not alone. Stage IV. When I became stage IV through my advocacy work, I thought, ‘Omigod. At this point, this stage I’m going to be losing people that I connected with.’ And that is so scary because every time you lose someone, there’s that pain and that loss of someone you have grown to love and respect and cherish, but there’s also that thought that comes, ‘When is that going to happen me?’
A friend told me that when you are experiencing pain and you’re navigating that path of loss of someone that you have grown to love and cherish, thank God we allow ourselves to get to know that person and open up our hearts to them and feel that pain because that’s part of living.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and brevity.
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