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Male Breast Cancer Survivor Shares Unique Perspective

Skip Quimby has a favorite quote: "It's what you learn after you know everything that counts."

That's how Skip decided to approach his breast cancer diagnosis: as a learning experience, with a little of his characteristic humor thrown in for good measure.

When asked what he got for his birthday in October 2008, for instance, Skip answered, "I got cancer and a new set of tires."

He simply didn’t want people to feel uncomfortable asking him about his cancer. After all, the diagnosis presented him with an opportunity to both learn and teach others. "I thought this was something very specific to women, but 1 percent of men get breast cancer," Skip said. "So now, I'm paying attention to this disease."

"The experience overall, and various specific aspects of the experience, helped me understand, to some degree, what women go through. I know I'll never really know what breast cancer feels like for a woman. But I have some sense of the experience they must have. And that, I think, is a really valuable learning experience for me."

-Skip Quimby

He started a journal to chronicle the unique perspective of being in that 1 percent of breast cancer patients. Yet parts of his story may have an all-too-familiar ring to the other 99 percent.

I'm not sure exactly when I first noticed something was "off" with my left breast. It wasn't really pain, but my nipple was sensitive to the touch and it felt like there was a lump of some sort, and my nipple was inverted. I told my doctor about my symptoms. "Take your shirt off and let's take a look," he said. So off comes the shirt and up on the exam table I go. I lie down on my back.

"Put your hand over your head," he said.

I thought to myself, I'm getting a breast exam.

His physician felt the lump, too. Skip got his first-ever prescription for a mammogram.

Nobody chuckles, or says we don’t see many men in here. In fact, I’m treated like . . . like one of the girls, you might say. With the same care and concern, and probably same assumptions. Because let’s face it, I’m not there for my normal annual screening mammogram. I’m there because my doctor felt something that didn't feel right, because I felt something that didn’t feel right.

Getting a mammogram is like putting your bosom in a vice and then being told to hold on tight. Being 6 feet 3 inches tall and male, I presented a particular challenge to the mammogram technicians. With men, it’s the same process, same procedure, but with some obvious obstacles created by lack of breast size.

The mammogram showed a suspicious mass. So Skip had an ultrasound, then a biopsy.

Looking back, I think I still didn't buy into the idea at the time that this biopsy was being done because the doctor wanted to be lead-pipe certain I had breast cancer, not just a very highly suspicious mass in my breast.

The next evening, his physician called with the news. His biopsy results revealed he had breast cancer, later determined to be stage 2.

Skip met with his physician, then talked with a family friend who was a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma survivor. "He said to get with a team – not just a surgeon, but an entire team – that does nothing but breast cancer," he said. "And that if I wanted to stay in Kansas City, I should go to The University of Kansas Cancer Center."

On Friday, October 24, 2008, my 59th birthday, we meet with Dr. Marilee McGinness, a breast surgeon at The University of Kansas Cancer Center.

From that meeting, Skip's course of treatment was a modified radical mastectomy, followed by four rounds of chemotherapy starting two weeks after his surgery.

A modified radical mastectomy. Whatever was there before isn’t coming back. It's gone. I’m always going to look different now.

Lab work after his second round of chemotherapy showed the tumor to be borderline HER2, which promotes the growth of cancer cells. HER2-positive breast cancers are generally more aggressive than other types, and are less responsive to hormone treatment.

Once he finished chemotherapy, Skip started a year-long treatment of Herceptin, which is very effective against HER2 cancers. Because he has two daughters, Skip also underwent genetic testing to see if he had passed the breast cancer gene on to them. His tests came back negative.

Today, almost a year and a half after first being diagnosed, Skip is a breast cancer survivor. And, he believes, he's better off for having gone through it.

I went to the land of breast cancer. And because I'm not a woman, I don’t think I could have really understood otherwise what they are faced with leading up to that diagnosis, and the aftereffects of surgery and treatment. I understand to some degree. I know that I'll never really know what that feels like for a woman. But I have some sense of the experience they must have.

I think I’m smarter for it. I think I’ll be more valuable for having had the experience.

Because no matter how much you know – or think you know – there's always more to learn in life.