Breast cancer awareness extends beyond a month for Kirkland
By Kristin Wells
All of the signs were there – unusual pain and bleeding coming from his chest. Yet, Ambrose Kirkland thought the last thing he was dealing with was anything other than breast cancer.
After ignoring his symptoms, Kirkland finally listened to his mother and went to the doctor for answers. A mammogram and other tests confirmed the devastating diagnosis. Kirkland was one of thousands of men who are affected by the disease.
He has since been a fighter against the ailment for himself and others. Although Breast Cancer Awareness Month has come and gone, Kirkland never stops his campaign against the disease that claims the lives of thousands every year. Getting his message to men is paramount, he said.
That’s no easy task, he said, adding that men have a history of not wanting to go to the doctor. He’s memorized the statistics that say this year alone 2,600 men will be diagnosed and 440 of them will succumb to breast cancer.
Another issue Kirkland finds is that men don’t like to associate their chests with breasts. Even he was not always been open about his body and the signs that led to his discovery. Now he tells about having gynecomastia as a child (a condition that causes more breast tissue to develop in boys and men). It caused him to feel insecure.
“I would secretly take ace bandages and wrap my chest down to flatten it,” he said.
Obesity and a family history of breast cancer are two factors that put men more at risk, said Dr. D.D. Raj Bendre, director of the radiation oncology department and chairman of the Cancer Committee at Tallahassee Memorial Cancer Center.
Kirkland fits the profile. Breast cancer runs in his father’s family history. He also said he has always been overweight, which he once believed was a reason he had a big chest. Like many men, Kirkland did not associate his symptoms to breast cancer.
The risks can be lowered by simply getting checked and treated sooner.
“As with women, earlier detection can give the best prognosis,” Bendre said. “I would say that the natural history of male breast cancer is somewhat more aggressive than with female breast cancer.
“This is probably because male breast cancer is diagnosed at a later stage as we don’t recommend male breast mammographic screening.”
Not only do African-American men refuse to go to the doctor, Kirkland said, but not having health insurance coverage is another issue. He also said even after an appointment, failure to seek second opinions and non-compliance are why men tend ignore the potential risk.
As much as Kirkland advocates the need for men to pay more attention to their bodies, he finds it frustrating that men battling the disease is a taboo subject.
“I was treated like a woman during my whole process,” he said.
Still, Kirkland continues to defy the naysayers. He rallies and speaks at every possible opportunity, near and far. He has also put a twist on the national awareness symbol. Everyday he dons a pink and blue button shaped like a bow, instead of a traditional all pink ribbon.
Kirkland’s mission is to save lives. He encourages others to get multiple opinions and to get tested for BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, found in hereditary cases of breast cancer. “That’s something you can know and prepare for and find out if you may pass it on to your children,” he said.
Bendre said men with the mutation genes should have a healthcare provider perform clinical breast exams every 6-12 months starting at age 35. He also recommends considering annual mammograms beginning at age 40.
Part of Kirkland’s mission is to let breast cancer survivors know that beating the disease is only half the battle. The other part is the complication that could come from treatment, he said.
He currently suffers from a partially collapsed lung as a result of radiation exposure from his treatment. He has also experienced extreme weight gain from steroids in the medication he uses.
Having a strong support system makes it all easier to cope with, Kirkland said. Aside from family, he’s gained the most help in organizations such as Protect the Pecs and the Male Breast Cancer Coalition.
Ultimately, faith in God and family help the most, said Kirkland’s sister, Angela.
“We made sure to be realistic, but also give hope,” she said “Don’t assume they want to be alone. When they’re going through chemo or radiation therapy that can be the worst. Sometimes holding their hand is all you need (and) say ‘you’re not by yourself’.”
Meanwhile, Kirkland continues his year-round awareness campaign.
“The thing is to a breast cancer survivor, it’s not just surviving in October,” he said. “For us it’s 365 days a year.”