Kirby Lewis: Raising Awareness of Male Breast Cancer

 

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Age: 59
Inwood, West Virginia

It took a while for me to be diagnosed with breast cancer because the first doctor I saw after I felt a lump my breast thought of it as a woman’s disease. Once I transferred my care to the VA Hospital in Washington, DC, I received incredible care. I am currently taking fulvestrant (Faslodex) and palbociclib (Ibrance), which are keeping the metastatic tumor in my lung from progressing. This is a blessing because it is allowing me to continue living, continue working, and continue raising awareness of male breast cancer.

I was diagnosed with stage 2A breast cancer in April 2012, but it all started a few months earlier with a very persistent cough and symptoms of a cold. While in bed one night, I began coughing, as I sat up to get air, I grabbed my chest and felt a lump. I woke up my wife and said, “Honey, I’ve found a lump in my breast. I think I have breast cancer.” Her response was, “If you have breast cancer, I have prostate cancer; now go to sleep.”

Unfortunately, it turned out that I did have breast cancer, but it took a while to get the diagnosis. The first doctor I saw told me that “men don’t get breast cancer,” but then I went to a nearby VA Hospital in Washington, DC, because I am a veteran. After a series of tests, an open biopsy showed that I had ER-positive, PR-positive, HER2-negative breast cancer.

I had surgery to remove my left breast and several lymph nodes, which turned out to be free of cancer.

During the tests to prepare for the mastectomy, they discovered I needed open heart surgery because of several blocked arteries. Who knows what would have happened without those pre-tests, so I always say that “Breast cancer saved my life.”

The open-heart surgery had to be delayed because the tamoxifen I was taking to reduce the chance that my breast cancer would recur or spread had driven my triglyceride levels up to what the doctors called industrial strength. So, I stopped taking tamoxifen and the 9½-hour open-heart surgery was a success.

Life was good for about four years, and then an X-ray showed tumors in my lungs in April 2016. Further scans and biopsies found additional tumors in my spine. The oncologist told me I had metastatic cancer. It was the hardest day of my life. It wasn’t just the diagnosis; it was also the impact it had on my wife. She had always been so strong, but this devastated her.

I immediately began chemotherapy. There are no words to describe adequately how miserable, how tired, how pulled down your body gets while you are taking chemotherapy. After about three months, a scan showed that the tumors had shrunk a little but were still there.

My oncologist tried me on a number of different treatments over the next few months but most of them gave me severe side effects so I would have to stop taking them and switch to another.

Amazingly, scans in November 2016 showed that there was no sign of the cancer in my body. I was over the moon. My oncologist attributed my new status of no evidence of disease to the treatments I had received; I like to think that prayer had something to do with it, too.

After that, I took fulvestrant and zoledronic acid (Zometa), which was to strengthen my bones, until a scan in August 2018 showed a small tumor in my right lung. Since January 2019, my oncologist has added palbociclib to the fulvestrant. I get fulvestrant injections once a month and I take palbociclib orally for 21 days, take nothing for 10 days, and then start the palbociclib again. This seems to be working because I’m not having severe side effects from the treatment and my most recent scans showed the tumor is stable and there are no signs of the cancer progressing. For someone with metastatic cancer, that is a blessing; after all, I'm still here and I hope that I'm doing something productive.

One of the things that I do now is raise awareness of male breast cancer. I am active in the advocacy community and I hope that by sharing my story I can show others that life doesn't end when you get a terminal diagnosis; it is still well worth living.

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