Survivor, Co-Founder of Male Breast Cancer Coalition Emphasizes It Is a ‘People’s Disease’

AONN+ 2020 Conference Highlights Special Feature —January 4, 2021

Amid the exciting milestones that punctuate one’s 17th year, including becoming a licensed driver, attending prom, and preparing to graduate high school and move into adulthood, Bret Miller had a nagging concern—a small, hard lump under his right nipple.

During multiple physicals around that time, his worry was assuaged. The doctor told him the lump was a mere calcium buildup, a result of puberty that would go away over time. When 7 years had passed and the lump was still there, Mr Miller asked his doctor to check it out. This time, the doctor recommended he have a sonogram done. After having the imaging done at a women’s clinic, doctors there recommended he have a mammogram that same day.

“There I am, walking down the hall in the pink gown to go get the mammogram,” Mr Miller, a Kansas City, KS, native recalled.

Shortly thereafter, doctors removed the lump, still believing it was a calcium deposit. It was the day after, April 28, 2010, when the doctor called to say preliminary reports showed breast cancer, and that someone would get back to Mr Miller in 3 to 5 days, when they had the chance to fully review the report.

“And that was pretty much it—no ‘Hey, you should really come in, we need to discuss these results,’ ‘Are you sitting down,’ or anything of a bedside manner to really help out, so I was really shell shocked, like a bomb,” he recalled.

At work at the time, Mr Miller called his father, Bob, to share the news. Because he was unable to discuss it at length, he asked that his diagnosis not be shared with his mother, Peggy, just yet. Five minutes later, she called, understandably worried and upset. The next day, thanks to Peggy’s advocacy, they were back at the doctor’s office, discussing the results.

With the help of his parents, Mr Miller was set up with those he refers to as his “angels.” Nurse navigator Mary Williams was one of them.

“She helped out tremendously,” he said. “They helped get my case into the top hands of the local doctors and that ended up helping me to get the best treatment.”

A second opinion came from a surgeon with whom Mr Miller felt comfortable and confident. It was this surgeon who ended up performing a single mastectomy on him on May 18, 2010.

“He said that he saw something in me, that if I was willing to share my story, he said he saw me as the face of male breast cancer, out there helping other men be comfortable with the diagnosis,” Mr Miller recalled, saying the doctor added that all 12 of his previous male breast cancer patients had quietly gone about their lives after treatment, choosing not to speak out.

The surgery was a success, and that moment represented a turning point for Mr Miller. He knew he could not be silent about the disease.

“This is bigger than me and a diagnosis. This is something that really needs to be talked about,” he asserted. “This is not a women’s disease. This is a people’s disease.”

With that in mind, he started the Bret Miller 1T Foundation only a day after his mastectomy, with the goal of raising awareness of male breast cancer among high school and college students. Four years later, he connected with fellow advocate Cheri Ambrose, and they teamed up as co-founders of the Male Breast Cancer Coalition.

“We are a very large, global resource support group for men, just to let them know that they are not alone when they hear the words, ‘You have breast cancer,’” Mr Miller said, adding that estimates say approximately 2600 US men will hear those words this year, but he and other advocates believe that number is actually higher. “We just want to make sure men are included in research, in trials, and in the terminology.”

He recalled the hurdles he had to overcome as a man with breast cancer, in addition to the significant burdens that already come with the disease.

“There were times that I was addressed as a female in paperwork, and having to go through women’s clinics for everything, which was also very off-putting and emasculating,” Mr Miller said, adding that clinics could help by scheduling male patients at the beginning or end of the day. “We always say we’re just trying to put a splash of blue in a sea of pink.”

Genetic testing determined he did not have a BRCA mutation, and the Oncotype DX® assay revealed he had a 22% risk for recurrence over the next decade. Being told 4 rounds of chemotherapy would reduce that risk by up to 10%, he was all for it. After a stint with tamoxifen had Mr Miller experiencing hormonal side effects, he switched to anastrozole.

“I did that for 5 years, and I’ve been free of cancer ever since,” he said, adding, “Be your own best advocate. If you feel something, say something. Know your doctor. Get second, third, fourth opinions, whatever it is until you feel comfortable.”

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