Meet Rod Ritchie, 65, a breast cancer survivor.
Cancer affects so many of us, whether it’s a friend or relative fighting the disease or our own battle of a lifetime to take on and beat “The Big C”.
But 74-year-old Julia Walkden of Cooroy, in Queensland’s Sunshine Coast Hinterland, and her partner of 20 years, Rod Ritchie, never expected cancer to affect them the way it did.
“I’m sorry to tell you this, but it’s breast cancer,” were the frightening words delivered to them in March 2015. It took time to sink in – all the more so because it was
Rod, not Julia, receiving the devastating diagnosis.
“Breast cancer wasn’t what I was expecting to hear,” Julia recalls.
For Rod, now 66, the doctor’s words brought back a disturbing image that had been seared into his memory as a 10-year-old boy. Catching a glimpse of his mother as she stepped out of the shower, he saw livid purple scar tissue where her left breast had been.
“No-one had ever said anything about Mum being sick or having breast cancer,” he said. “She’d had a mutilating radical mastectomy and intense radiation – that was the treatment of the day. It was pre-chemo.”
Two years later, at just 40 years old, his mother was gone. Rod’s diagnosis came 10 years after he visited his family doctor with concerns about a lump in his chest; a mammogram was negative.
“Over the years, I could feel it but I wasn’t thinking breast cancer because I’d been told otherwise,” he says. “I’d gone back to the doctor twice as it’d grown. The third time I asked for a scan.”
By then, the skin on Rod’s breast resembled orange peel, had become warm to the touch, and his nipple had inverted. The subsequent biopsy results indicated advanced inflammatory breast cancer, and it had already spread and invaded two of his lymph nodes. Very quickly, Rod’s treatment began – sweeping him up in a wave of pink.
“One per cent of newly diagnosed patients with breast cancer are men,” he explains. “We’re just a tiny dot of blue in that fundraising and awareness sea of pink.
“It didn’t worry me personally to be the only man in the treatment room, but I know some men feel uncomfortable about having a ‘women’s disease’.”
For Rod, gender makes no difference when it comes to breast cancer.
“The way I look at it, males have the same amount of breast tissue as females until puberty, and it only takes a few cells in what breast tissue there is to be mutant for cancer to develop. It’s the luck of the draw,” he says.
“In a similar way, only one per cent of newly diagnosed patients with breast cancer are women aged under 30.”
Rod’s treatment involved a course of chemotherapy followed by extensive surgery – a modified radical mastectomy removing the breast tissue and 23 lymph nodes – then 25 radiation treatments.
He coped well with the chemo and kept working throughout, running his independent publishing business and staying busy to take his mind off things.
“I decided to build the carport – that was my chemo project!” he says.
From the outset, Rod was quick to tell the world what was happening.
“I wasn’t keeping it a secret,” he says. “When the effects of chemo – I lost 10kg and my hair – became evident, people would ask what was going on and I’d tell them straight, and many didn’t even know men can get breast cancer.”
Subsequent genetic testing has found Rod has a variation of the BRCA1 gene. Rod’s three brothers – two of whom have daughters – have been advised that they may also carry the gene, as have his adult children: a son, 39, and a daughter, 43, the latter of whom is now in a breast cancer-screening program.
Rod continues daily hormone therapy to keep the cancer at bay, and he’s eternally grateful for the unconditional support of his friends, family and, of course, Julia.
However, the couple stress the need for increased awareness about breast cancer in men, and together they remain positive about the future.
“We live in hope that the disease won’t progress,” Rod says.
“We’re busy getting on with life, counting blessings and living each day to the full.”
Blokes and breast cancer
- Each year, more than 16,000 Australians are diagnosed with breast cancer. Of those, 150 – or about one per cent – are men.
- Males 60-plus are more at risk than young men.
- There is no screening program for men.
- A family history of the disease can be a risk factor for both women and men.
Source: Now to Love published 1 May 2017