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Making Male Breast Cancer Awareness a Mission

June 07, 2024

Spreading awareness about male breast cancer has become a calling for Catherine Szerszen and her fiancé Bob Havens ever since Bob was diagnosed with stage I breast cancer in 2023. When Bob first heard the news, he did not feel fear in that moment, and instead asked, “Well, what can we do about it?” As a Vietnam War veteran, his decision was to take the diagnosis head on and made it his mission to share what he learned along the way with others so that they would not have to endure a similar path.

After experiencing some weight loss, Bob noticed a lump on his left breast, but attributed it to the recent weight loss. Even when his nipple became inverted and he noticed a bloody discharge, he assumed it was a normal reaction his body was having. When he mentioned it during his annual physical, his primary care doctor sent him for a mammogram and an ultrasound as a precaution. A week later, a biopsy was performed, which revealed his diagnosis.

Bob and Catherine were then referred to Elizabeth Berger, MD, FACS, Assistant Professor of Surgery (Surgical Oncology) with the Center for Breast Cancer at Smilow Cancer Hospital and Yale Cancer Center. “Dr. Berger walked in and before she even sat down she said, ‘this cancer is treatable and curable,’” Bob recalled. “That immediately put us both at ease and helped us to focus on our options. She explained that I could undergo either a mastectomy or a lumpectomy, both with similar outcomes but different side effects and requirements for each. After weighing our options, we decided that a lumpectomy was the best choice, which meant I would need radiation following my chemotherapy.”

After the lumpectomy was performed in August of 2023, they met with Jane Kanowitz, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine (Medical Oncology) and Medical Director of Smilow Cancer Hospital in North Haven to begin chemotherapy. Over the course of 12 weeks, Bob received four rounds of chemotherapy every 21 days. He commented that the most debilitating physical side effect was the fatigue that would last for days following his treatment. Mentally he experienced ‘chemo brain,’ which he described as lapses of memory and that affected him more than anything else, as he had always been a creature of organization and on top of his game. He also suffered from mood swings that Catherine described as frustrating for both to them.

“With cancer and treatment your cognitive levels are impaired and equally so are your emotional levels and the emotional piece almost gets pushed to the side since you are so focused on treatment,” said Catherine. “It can really take a toll on the patient as well as their caregiver. Bob has always been a large presence and to suddenly find himself weak and unable to do much for himself or others, there is a level of frustration that builds.”

Dr. Kanowitz commented that despite tremendous scientific advancements in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer over the past quarter century many myths, including that men don't get breast cancer, still exist. “This simply isn’t true,” said Dr. Kanowitz. “Though breast cancer in men is uncommon, men comprise 1 percent of all breast cancer diagnoses in the United States, and the lack of awareness regarding male breast cancer can lead to advanced stages at diagnosis which in turn, can effect outcomes. I commend Bob and Catherine for sharing their story and raising awareness.”

Catherine was with Bob every step of the way and became scheduler, cheerleader, mediator, and enforcer, when needed. She made sure that Bob was at every appointment and followed all of the doctors’ orders. She commented that you have to love someone through something like this and that there is a constant balance between providing care but also needing to preserve her own health as well. Bob and Catherine started a bereavement group that provides free counseling to anyone that has lost a loved one.

“The experience is hard on everyone that loves someone that has cancer,” said Catherine. “It can take a toll on your relationship, but we were not going to let that happen to us. Cancer was not going to get us.” Bob proposed to Catherine on November 2, 2023 and they are looking forward to rebuilding their lives and starting their next journey together with a focus on spreading awareness about male breast cancer. Catherine is participating in the Ms. Senior World Pageant and hopes to use the opportunity to bring awareness to Bob’s story on a national level.

“I make it a point to tell every man that I can my story and encourage them to speak up and ask for a breast exam,” said Bob. “Often diagnosis is delayed because men are embarrassed or don’t seek help, but if even one male stops and thinks about it and I can save one life, that’s what matters. We want to get the message out that this diagnosis does not take away your masculinity, if anything it makes you stronger and in many ways it brought me closer to my family and friends as we talked about things I would not have normally opened up about.”

Bob commented that at one point his mantra became “I don’t care.” He felt removed from the life that he knew and denied some of the cognitive and physical side effects he was experiencing until he fell in the bathroom and broke three ribs while undergoing chemotherapy. “I explained to my very good friend that I wasn’t me for a very long time. You are so focused on recovering that you lose yourself and become ‘something’ else during that time. Not someone else, but something I can’t explain; I felt useless. Luckily, I had Catherine by my side and the role of a caregiver is so pivotal. Dr. Kanowitz is also an unbelievable doctor and my follow-ups are going well, my energy levels are back up, and I am feeling strong again.”

“Male breast cancer is a complicated diagnosis that comes with a lot of hurdles and frustrations,” said Catherine. “But we are still here, and we are going to do whatever it takes to make sure we spread the word to all men that this can happen, and that if it does, there’s nothing to be ashamed of and you should do everything within your power to fight it.”

Submitted by Emily Montemerlo on June 07, 2024