Male breast cancer survivor tells story of diagnosis

click to enlarge Male breast cancer survivor tells story of diagnosis
Eric Hanson, a Tucson male breast cancer survivor, understands the uneasiness most men have even acknowledging that they, too, can get the disease.(Eric Hanson/Submitted)

Most stories on breast cancer come illustrated with pink bows and inspiring images of brave women bonded together in a sisterhood of support.

But this one begins in a dark Las Vegas casino, with a group of men hunkered over a card table at the World Series of Poker last July.

One of them, 37-year-old Rob Mercer from Vallejo, California, was the sentimental favorite. He’d managed to raise the steep $10,000 buy-in fee to participate in the main event on a GoFundMe page, where he announced he had stage 4 colon cancer and needed help fulfilling his lifelong dream to play in the tournament.

Fellow poker players chipped in immediately, including Cody Daniels from Lake Havasu City, a 28-year-old who’s been battling chronic illness himself since childhood, when the Make-A-Wish Foundation similarly stepped up to grant his wish.

Daniels donated $2,500 to help the stranger get to the table. In the end, Mercer received nearly $50,000 in donations by some estimates, including a suite at the Bellagio during the event.

Before the tournament was over, however, it was discovered that Mercer had lied about his diagnosis. He admitted to the Las Vegas Review-Journal that he didn’t actually have colon cancer, saying he claimed that “just as a spur-of-the-moment thing when someone asked me what kind of cancer I had.” The truth, he said (and that’s still being disputed), was that he was too embarrassed to name his actual disease: breast cancer.

Eric Hanson, a male breast cancer survivor who also volunteers for Making Strides of Greater Tucson, the American Cancer Society’s Tucson chapter, understands the uneasiness most men have even acknowledging that they, too, can get the disease.

“When I first got diagnosed and after I started treatment, I had a friend who would not call it ‘breast cancer.’ He would call it ‘chest cancer,’” he said, with a laugh. “And I told him, ‘I don’t have chest cancer; I have breast cancer.’ That uncomfortableness is a very common trait in most men.”

And don’t get them started on male nipples. “On one of my first appointments, the doctor said, ‘I’ve got good news for you,’ ” said Hanson, who expected her next words to be, “You don’t have cancer.” Instead, she said, “ ‘I think I can save your nipple.’ And I’m sitting there like, ‘What?’ But then, as I went through the process and as I interacted with so many other, so many female breast cancer survivors, I realized how important that is.”

Although it’s certainly true that breast cancer mainly affects women — close to 298,000 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer this year in the United States, compared with only 2,800 men — men are more likely than women to die after being diagnosed with breast cancer, according to 2019 research published in JAMA Oncology.

“The survey showed that male patients had an almost 20% higher chance of dying than female patients within five years of diagnosis, and that’s because we don’t get it checked,” said Hanson who, like most men, admits he would have never thought of going into the doctor’s office for a mammogram had his wife, Erika, not questioned the lump she found on his right breast.

“The thought of us having a typically female disease never occurs to most men,” said the retired Air Force senior master sergeant, who cuts an unlikely hulky figure for high estrogen exposure. “And going for a mammogram? I didn’t even think men could be subject to mammograms! So, by the time we finally do get diagnosed, our cancer is spread. We’re not looking at stage 1, stage 2. We’re looking at stage 3 or 4.”

Fortunately, although Hanson’s mammogram and subsequent biopsy in May 2017 revealed he had invasive ductal carcinoma, he caught it in time and was able to put it in remission after a successful surgery followed by a six-week course of daily radiation treatments.

He’s currently taking medication to help prevent the cancer from recurring. “They’re keeping a close eye on me, but I’m doing good,” he said.

In the process, Hanson says he’s developed an empathy for women dealing with breast cancer that he feels would benefit other men — and maybe direct more male participation in fighting a disease most of them feel falsely immune to.

That was his inspiration for starting Tucson’s “Pints 4 Pink” nonprofit organization, where breweries donate a percentage of the profits for each pint of a particular beer sold throughout October to support breast cancer research. In its first year, nine local breweries pooled together to donate close to $4,000 to the University of Arizona Cancer Center.

He’s currently trying to rally more men to show up to this month’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk on Sunday, Oct. 15, put on by the American Cancer Society’s Greater Tucson chapter.

“Even at the walks, the vast majority of people there are females,” he said. “It seems like unless you have an immediate loved one who has been affected by it, most guys figure, ‘Let the women get together and do their walk. I’ll stay here and watch football that Sunday.’”

Dr. Sima Ehsani Chimeh, the breast clinical research team leader at the UA Cancer Center, sees that attitude, too, and says that while men are less likely to be personally affected, their support matters in advancing research and treatment.

“Look at feminism, and look at everything else that is related to women,” she said. “If you don’t get the participation from the other half of the population, the effort can only go so far. Even if men are not personally involved with breast cancer as much as women, they can be involved in the cure.”

Ehsani Chimmeh also recommends her patients that are diagnosed with breast cancer to undergo genetic testing to see if they carry the gene mutation that could put their offspring at higher risk.

“A lot of times, they tell me, for example, ‘Oh, I don’t have a daughter; I have two sons, so it’s not going to be relevant to have that information,’ ” she said. “I have to explain to them that their sons can also inherit the mutation if they carry it, and that can put them at risk for developing breast cancer — or other cancers.”

Men can also carry the gene, so sometimes a doctor will recommend they undergo genetic testing. “If they have the mutation and have daughters, their daughters could be affected,” said Ehsani Chimeh.

Both the doctor and Hanson agree that the preponderance of pink doesn’t help attract men to the cause — even post-Barbie movie.

“Before I got diagnosed with breast cancer, I never had this many pink shirts in my closet!” Hanson said. “But now, wearing it really makes for some interesting conversations that most males would never have with a female — you know, talking about mammograms and scars and reconstructive surgeries. All these things that I can now relate to. And I think that’s a good thing.”