Becoming Part of the 1%: It can happen to our Fathers, too

em leeby Emily Barstow, daughter of Founder Cynthia Barstow and her husband Lee

Of the 250,000 cases of breast cancer that occur annually, just 1% (2,500) of men are diagnosed because yes, they too have breast tissue. Due to the low statistics, it came as a shock to my family when my father was instructed to schedule an appointment for a mammogram. He had felt a lump under his left nipple for a couple months, never imagining that he should have it examined for breast cancer. That was my mother’s thing after all. We anxiously joked about my father’s mammogram, but we were unnerved underneath it all. I was present when we spoke to the pathologist, who explained that after doing this job for 40 years he was 95% sure that my father’s tumor was in fact malignant. Silence filled the room while my father and I took in the news. He was in fact part of the 1%.

In the next week, my father had a needle biopsy, met with the surgeon (the same one my mother had when she went through her treatment), went in to Mass General Hospital for CT scans, bone scans, waited to hear test results and discussed treatment options. It was decided that he would have a mastectomy. There had barely been time to let the news settle in. I did feel lucky, as the rest of my family did, that we were so knowledgeable about the process as my mother had gone through it eight years prior and founded Protect Our Breasts as a result. It was still frightening, but the most frustrating part was that my father didn’t deserve it. Of course, no one “deserves” to be diagnosed with an illness, but both he and my mother eat organic food and use chemical-free cleaning and personal care products. For a moment, it felt like none of that mattered. However, in the most recent weeks, it’s become clear that the issue is very important, now more than ever. Without leading a healthy lifestyle, the cancer may well have come earlier in my father’s life and been even more invasive. The work that Protect Our Breasts does to educate college-aged women and men about chemicals used in everyday products will decrease the number of breast cancer diagnoses per year, maybe not this year or next, but there is no doubt that Protect Our Breasts’ work will eventually decrease the odds.

Just a few days ago, we left the oncologist appointment at MGH having heard the news that my father will need to undergo chemotherapy and take a pill for the next five to ten years in order to decrease the risk of the cancer coming back. He had questioned the treatment – what were the risks versus the benefits? After being told that there was a 44% risk of the cancer coming back with the mastectomy alone, it was a no brainer. He would go through with the treatment, taking on all of the side effects in order to decrease the risk of reoccurrence. When walking out of the oncologist’s office, my father said “I feel like I’m joining the human race. So many people are going through these kind of treatments everyday.” This comment really struck me. The “human race” should not be going through these treatments; it needs to be stopped before it starts. That is exactly where Protect Our Breasts comes in – preventing breast cancer so that our loved ones – mothers, fathers, friends – don’t have to live in fear. So that the “human race” can be healthy and cancer free. I’m proud of both my father and my mother, for what they’ve gone through, what they’ve made of their experiences d their continued fight to prevent breast cancer from affecting the lives of everyone around them.

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