Not just a female thing

Howland man is a 15-year breast cancer survivor

Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple Male breast cancer survivor Ken MacMillan, 80, of Howland stands outside his recreational vehicle. He was checked out at hospitals in several states without resolution before coming home and being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Editor’s Note: Every Tuesday in October, national Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the Tribune Chronicle is featuring stories about the cancer journeys of area residents. Also, life after breast cancer will be the topic of the All About Health magazine that will be inserted into Friday’s Tribune Chronicle.

HOWLAND — Even some folks in the medical profession regard him as an oddity, male breast cancer survivor Ken MacMillan said.

“I’ve gone to doctors that say, ‘Wow, you had breast cancer? Can we see?’ I said, ‘You’re supposed to be treating people and seeing stuff. This shouldn’t be a surprise to you,'” said MacMillan, 80, a 15-year cancer survivor underwent a mastectomy to his left breast.

According to the Ohio Department of Health’s “Ohio Annual Cancer Report, 2018,” breast cancer is by far the most common cancer among women. It affected 127.9 out of every 100,000 women in 2015, the most recent reporting year, and consistently is the highest number.

Breast cancer doesn’t crack the top five cancers among men. Prostate (19 of every 100,000 men in 2015) and colon (17.8 out of 100,000) are the most common cancers in men, according to the Ohio statistics.

There were only 1.1 cases of breast cancer out of every 100,000 men in Ohio in 2015.

Breast cancer caused 22.7 out of every 100,000 deaths in women in Ohio in 2015, compared to 0.2 of every 100,000 male deaths.

MacMillan thinks that in reality, the numbers for men are higher.

“When breast cancer is mentioned, every one associates it to women,” he said. “There are many men who have breast cancer. My doctor told me it’s over 1,500 yearly (nationally), but because men don’t realize this, it isn’t caught in time and spreads till it’s too late.”

By the time it claims the man’s life, the cancer has moved into so many areas of the body that it’s hard to say where it started, he said.

“I’m going through all this,” he said. “Everything is slanted toward women — everything. I did complain. I said men are never going to think, ‘It can happen to me,’ the way the whole system slants it toward women.

“I know men who have had breast cancer but won’t talk about it because they feel a stigma about it,” he said.

MacMillan said his cancer journey started on the road. He was in Mexico.

He had already retired from General Motors Corp. Lordstown Complex as a quality superintendent and took an engineering supervisor job with an engineering company that was working projects in Mexico.

“We were there almost five years,” he said. “My wife was teaching down there. We drove all over Mexico.”

Then the problems began.

“I kept having these pains that weren’t normal down through my side and into my abdomen and stuff,” he said. “I didn’t feel good. Nobody down there could tell me why.”

He left Mexico and spent several months visiting various hospitals.

“I had a motorhome. We stayed in Texas for the winter. I went to a hospital in Mission, Texas. They couldn’t find anything.

“We packed up the motorhome close to spring and headed to my brother’s in California. When we got up there, I got checked again because the pain was coming back. They couldn’t find anything. So I was beginning to think I was a hypochondriac.

“We went to our daughter’s in Utah. I went to a hospital there. Nothing.”

Back home in Howland, his wife went to her doctor for a problem with an inverted nipple.

“So I said, ‘I got one of them. So what?’

“She went to the doctor and the doctor sends her home with a message for me to get down there right now,” he said.

He was sent to another doctor for a biopsy, which revealed cancer.

There was an eight- to 10-week waiting period to get into a cancer unit in Cleveland, he said. “My oldest boy panics a little bit. He goes online and finds the top hospitals for breast cancer. He finds one in Buffalo (the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center).

“I got my biopsy back on Monday … and Friday, I was sitting in a doctor’s office. She wanted to schedule me for surgery the next week.

“It was probably eight months it was growing (while he was trying to get a diagnosis),” MacMillan said. “They gave me a 55 percent chance. They didn’t want to tell me the odds. I said, ‘It’s my disease, I gotta fight, I need to know.'”

Surgery took place shortly after in November.

“I was going into Stage III,” he said. “They took out my left side breast. They took about 33 lymph nodes and 27 of them were infected.

His six months of chemotherapy was set to begin January. Since winters are so deep in Buffalo, he was sent to the James Cancer Center at The Ohio State University.

“It’s everything they said it is and three times worse,” he said of the chemotherapy. “I wouldn’t get sick that day. It was 24 hours later. So we get out of Dodge and then I was sick the rest of that week.”

Chemotherapy was followed by 29 radiation treatments (“They burn the devil out of you for five straight days”) and continued medication.

“After I had the mastectomy, the problem was gone,” MacMillan said. “We came home after I had the treatment. I got bored because I didn’t have anything to do because I didn’t have cancer anymore. So I remodeled the house.

“Fifteen years and I’ve been clear,” he said. “But I go down to Ohio State every year for a yearly checkup and mammogram, and my wife goes, too. They keep me in the waiting room until all the women are cleared out. They take them in the back and put them in rooms and give them treats and stuff. Me, they offer a bottle of water.”

And while it irks him that he feels like a trespasser in the world of breast cancer care, MacMillan said the fault can’t be placed entirely on the professionals. Men themselves must pay attention to their bodies and get checked out.

“Men don’t do what women do. (Women are) conscious of all this and we aren’t,” he said.

Men also sometimes have other side effects from cancer treatments. “I never got my hair back,” MacMillan said.